A New Era in Family Hiking, The Best 3 to 6 Mile Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park

This summer we reached a turning point. Gone are the days of baby packs, kid carriers, and short strolls with preschoolers. We will look back on our early years of hiking with fond memories. But let’s be real, hiking with very young children is challenging!

This summer our seven-year-old and five-year-old daughters exceeded our expectations by hiking several of our favorite three to six mile hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park on their own.

Mills Lake

A hike to Mills Lake marked the first big trek of the summer. Mills Lake is in the Bear Lake Corridor of Rocky Mountain National Park. The hike begins at Bear Lake trailhead (9,475 ft elevation). The trail passes by the iconic Alberta Falls. The total distance is 5.6 miles roundtrip.

Looking Back: 2017 post, Seeking Serenity in the Mountains

Mills Lake

EMERALD LAKE

Hiking with best friends was the secret to our successful hike to Emerald Lake. Our group hiked 3.6 miles with an elevation gain of 650 ft. The hike to Emerald Lake is one of the best hikes in RMNP because you pass by Nymph Lake and Dream Lake on your way up. Like Mills Lake, this hike also starts at the Bear Lake trailhead in Rocky Mountain National Park. We didn’t get to enjoy the views at Emerald Lake for long before a sudden hail and rainstorm had us heading down the mountain. By the time we reached the parking lot, the sky cleared, and we saw the most spectacular double rainbow.

Looking Back: 2018 post, Breathtaking Hike to Dream Lake

Young Families in Rocky Mountain National Park

gem lakE

Gem Lake is in Rocky Mountain National Park’s Lumpy Ridge area. The hike is 3.6 miles (1.8 miles each way), gains 1,000 ft of elevation, and features unique rock formations like ‘The Boot’. Rock steps lead to the small mountain lake. These steps are moderately challenging for me. For the girls and their shorter legs, the climb required an extraordinary effort.

Looking Back: 2015 post, Rocky Mountain Tot Goes to Gem Lake

Ouzel Falls

Ouzel Falls is located in the Wild Basin area of Rocky Mountain National Park where abundant wildflowers bloom beside rushing waterfalls. This area is often less crowded and is lower in elevation compared to the Bear Lake area. The hike to Ouzel Falls begins at 8,500 ft of elevation and gains 950 ft. The total distance is 5.4 miles (2.7 miles/way). Before arriving at Ouzel Falls, the trail passes Copeland Falls and the Calypso Cascades which are both beautiful destinations on their own.

Looking Back: 2015 post, Into the Wild Basin in Rocky Mountain National Park

Deer Mountain

The trailhead for this summit hike is located off of Deer Ridge Junction, a few miles west of Rocky Mountain National Park’s Beaver Meadows entrance. The 10,013 ft. summit features sweeping views. The hike is 6 miles total distance (3 miles/way).

Looking Back: 2017 post, Deer Mountain – a Family-Friendly Summit Hike In Rocky Mountain National Park

Deer Mountain, good spring summit hike for families in Rocky Mountains

Blue lake in indian peaks wilderness

Unlike the other hikes in this post, Blue Lake is located in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area rather than Rocky Mountain National Park. The recreation area is located approximately 1 hour 20 minutes from Denver, 50 minutes from Boulder, and 50 minutes from Estes Park. The hike is 6.2 miles round trip and gains 1,250 feet in elevation. The trail passes several mountain lakes including Mitchell Lake. We spotted several moose along the trail.

Looking Back: Post from 2016 hike, Add This to Your Hiking Bucket List, Blue Lake in Indian Peaks Wilderness.

The fact that we were able to experience six world-class hikes as a family fills my heart with gratitude. To celebrate, we purchased the girls’ hiking badges for each destination they reached.

I can’t wait to see which badges they will add to their collections next!

Outdoor Fun with our Inflatable Stand Up Paddle Board and Kayak

School is back in session and tonight’s post is a bit of a ‘brain break’ for me. Starting a new school year is bittersweet because I love spending time with my girls during the summer, they are at such fun ages. One of favorite outdoor activites was taking out our new inflatable stand up paddle board and inflatable 2-person kayak.

SUP is short for Stand Up Paddle Board, but I don’t feel hip enough to use the term ‘SUP’.

I received an EvaJoy Inflatable Paddle Board as a gift for my birthday. The paddle board came with a hand pump, repair kit, fin, paddle, and dry bag. The paddle board is big (10’10″” long by 32″” wide) which means that I could paddle in the back and have one of my daughters sit comfortably in front of me.

I’ve heard that paddle boarding is a good exercise for core muscles, but for me, the workout starts before we hit the water. Inflating the board with the hand pump is a lot of work! After several uses, I’m having a hard time keeping the hose connected while I pump so it usually takes two of us to inflate the board. Once inflated, the board feels very sturdy.

We purchased a Star 2-person inflatable kayak similar to this one. We also purchased kid-sized paddles. Our girls are learning how to steer and turn. This kayak has worked well for our family on lakes this summer, but I think it will perform even better for floating the river next spring.

We took both the board and kayak to several lakes in Colorado including Lake Estes and Grand Lake. We’ve also enjoyed paddle boarding and kayaking on lakes in Arkansas including Beaver Lake and Greers Ferry Lake.

Hike from Old Fall River Road

Old Fall River road is a gravel road that travels one-way from the Endovalley Picnic Area all the way up to the Alpine Visitor Center in Rocky Mountain National Park. Because of extreme weather conditions at this altitude, the road is typically only available to drive up during the summer months. In 2021, it is scheduled to close to vehicles beginning October 4 according to the national park’s website.

Less busy trail in Rocky Mountain National Park

Driving up Old Fall River Road can feel treacherous because it is so narrow. Plus, once you start, you can’t turn back. However, the drive is slow paced (in fact the speed limit is 15 miles per hour). There are stunning views on the way up to the Alpine Visitor Center. Don’t miss Chasm Falls which I wrote about here.

Rocky mountain national park wildlife

Marmot Rocky Mountain National Park

We spotted wildlife on the tundra including fuzzy marmots basking in the morning sunlight. We noticed an unmarked trail on the final stretch of the drive and decided to pull over and explore.

Old Fall River Road hiking

best views rocky mountain national park

The path was short and steep. Since the starting elevation is so high, we were quickly rewarded with 360-degree mountain views. Check out 9 More Hikes with Amazing Views in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Best views Rocky Mountain National Park

less busy trail in Rocky mountain national park

Our kids who are ages 4 and 6 were able to hike this on their own. We all loved our new discovery! There is another short hike that leaves from the Alpine Visitor Center called the Alpine Ridge Trail. We’ve enjoyed that trail in the past, but I liked this one even more because it’s much less popular.

Getting back to Estes Park

After visiting the Alpine Visitor Center, you can travel back down the mountain towards Estes Park on Trail Ridge Road.

Elk herd Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park with Kids: Alluvial Fan and Sheep Lakes

It has been a few years since I wrote out a suggested itinerary for Rocky Mountain National Park, so today I’m excited to share a mini itenerary that I think is ideal for families with young children.

Animals in Rocky Mountain National Park

If I’m honest, the person who gets the most excited about spotting animals in Rocky Mountain National Park is me. But our kids enjoy spotting wildlife too, and one of the best places to see wildlife is at Sheep Lakes which is located near the Fall River Entrance Station on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park (by Estes Park, Colorado).

When we visited the park in early June, we spotted more bighorn sheep than we’ve ever seen! We also saw a bull moose, elk, and a coyote in the field. Sometimes traffic on the road has to stop so the animals can safely cross. There is a parking lot where you will see excited visitors practicing their wildlife photography with impressive zoom lenses. Or you can be like me and pull out your iPhone to take a quick photo. Either way, it’s a really cool experience and there are usually park rangers stationed at Sheep Lakes to answer questions and help protect visitors and animals by ensuring no one gets too close. Remember, animals need their space.

Bighorn sheep Rocky Mountain National Park
Bighorn sheep rocky mountain national park
Moose at Sheep Lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park

Best Hikes in Rocky mountain national park For Families

Right down the road from Sheep Lakes you will find the Alluvial Fan which has always been one of our favorite kid-friendly waterfall hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park. Thanks to recent renovations, this destination has become even more accessible and beautiful. According to a recent story in the Denver Post, ‘The trail surface is made of FilterPave, which feels solid underfoot — sort of like a backyard patio floor — but is porous to allow for drainage.’

The National Park’s website describes the Alluvial Fan as ‘a beautiful cascade of water flowing down through a boulder field.’ The Alluvial Fan was created when a dam broke at Lawn Lake in 1892.

Alluvial Fan

3 great ways to add on to this adventure

Before arriving in the national park, consider stopping at the Fall River Visitor Center which is located right off Hwy 36. The visitor center has educational displays about the park and helpful staff to answer questions. The visitor center is attached to a huge gift shop and Trailhead Restaurant. This is a great spot to order breakfast and sit on the back deck that overlooks Deer Mountain. We also appreciate the fenced in playground next to the restaurant. At the Gateway, there is a stable where visitors can go on guided rides into Rocky Mountain National Park. I wrote about my horseback riding experience here.

family photo in estes park colorado

Another way to add on to an outing to the Alluvial Fan is to bring a picnic lunch to the nearby Endovalley Picnic Area. Picnic lunches are one of our favorite family-friendly activities in Rocky Mountain National Park. We wrote about five more of our favorite picnic spots here.

My last suggestion for an add-on adventure is to drive up Old Fall River Road to the Alpine Visitor Center. This is a narrow, one-way road that starts at the Endovalley Picnic Area and winds all the way up into the tundra at Fall River Pass. Make sure to stop at Chasm Falls on the way up. Since it is one-way, you take Trail Ridge Road back down towards Estes Park. There are many pull-outs to take pictures and trails to go on breathtaking hikes on the tundra. Old Fall River Road is seasonal. It typically is open to vehicles July 4 through September, however even in the summer, it’s always a good idea to check on road and weather conditions before taking this journey.

When the road is closed to vehicle traffic, visitors use the trail for walking, jogging, and biking. Dogs aren’t allowed on trails in RMNP, but since this is a road, it is one of the few places that dogs are welcome to go on a hike with you inside the national park. We wrote about our hike up Old Fall River Road here.

Chasm Falls off of Old Fall River Road