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.
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.
You will find details about these destinations (and more!) in the following pages:
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.
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.”
The hike up Deer Mountain is 6.2 miles round-trip and gains just over 1,200 feet of elevation.
Deer Mountain is a special place for our family—it’s the first hike in Rocky Mountain National Park that we brought our daughter Cecy along with us on back in May of 2015 when she was just six months old. It’s since been known in our family as “Cecy’s Mountain,” reinforced by the fact that you can catch great views of it from one of our favorite places for breakfast/hot chocolate, the Trailhead Restaurant.
Along with having great views and being one of the more moderate summit hikes in the park, Deer Mountain is also one of the best year-round options due to it’s proximity to the park entrance (less icy roads to contend with) and the fact that the snow tends to blow off/melt out earlier here than in some of the other popular trailhead areas, such as Bear Lake and Glacier Gorge. It’s roughly 6.2 miles round-trip and gains just over 1,200 feet of elevation.
On our most recent trip to Estes Park in late December of 2019, both of our girls came down with a bit of a cold, so we were hesitant to spend quite as much time outside in the chilly air as we typically would with them. We instead focused on taking in the scenery, looking for wildlife, and undertaking an adventure in finding the best chili in Estes Park. But it’s just about impossible for me to be in the mountains and not get out for at least one hike, so after a few days, Kelly was gracious enough to let me slip away for a few hours to try to tackle a familiar hike, but with a new twist—Deer Mountain in Winter/Snow conditions.
The park had a small base amount snow on the ground when we had arrived earlier in the week and had just received and extra 4-8 inches of snow two days before my attempt, so I didn’t know what to expect. Sometimes the popularity of Rocky Mountain National Park can be overwhelming, but in this instance, I was thankful that more die-hard hikers had already been out the day prior to help pack down the trail. I arrived at the trailhead around 9:00am to beautiful sunshine and remarkably calm winds, which made the 14 degree temperature seem tolerable.
It’s been my experience in prior years that for many hikes, traction devices such as yak tracks and a set of trekking poles are more efficient than dealing with snow shoes (unless you are going higher in elevation or deeper in the wooded areas to low-traffic trails), and I was glad to find that the conditions again matched the gear I had brought with me for my hike. I downloaded the GPS map of the area with the AllTrails app as a back-up to make sure I kept on the right path. This came in handy even in the first quarter mile of trail, as the trailhead area had seen a fair amount of aimless footprint tracks from people just pulling off for a quick walk to explore the area, making it a little tricky to discern the main path.
That quickly changed, however, as even though I was the first person at the trailhead that morning, an easy to follow, packed trail emerged for the remainder of my adventure.
One of the memories that always sticks in my mind about Deer Mountain is the long stretch of flat ground, and even a small descent, in the final mile of the hike before the summit push. The snow was quite a bit deeper in this area, and if I accidentally wandered off the trail just a bit, it was easy to post-hole into the soft powder that was just off the main path. Here I spotted tracks from several animals that had also been out playing in the snow.
The final stretch to the summit was substantially steeper, and the trekking poles became a bit more of a necessity for balance in the snow, but it felt quite safe and made for a fun push to the top.
The summit views were beautiful as always. I try to bring an apple or some sort of snack to eat at the destination of any hike, so I slow down for a minute and just soak it all in rather than simply turning around to complete the return journey. Even though the temperature was well below freezing, the hike up the mountain left me quite warm…but that heat quickly dissipated as I had my snack and wandered around to take some pictures from the top.
So without too much time wasted, I bundled back up and started down the trail again. Though I had been alone for the entire hike up and perhaps the first mile and half on the way back down, I did encounter several pairs of hikers on my return journey. Most asked about the trail conditions and were as delighted as I was to learn that the path was well-packed and easy to track all the way to the summit.
I got back to my car at around 11:30 am, satisfied with having completed my first “winter summit” and ready to pick up some chili on the way home. We recommend Deer Mountain as an early summer hike, or really an “anytime” hike in the peak season, but now can feel confident suggesting to friends who want to take on a “safer” winter challenge as well.
Through all the things my eyes have seen The best by far is you
Tomorrow is my daughter’s 2nd birthday, so I’m feeling extra sentimental about everything… even this post about hikes with amazing views. I asked my husband which hikes near Estes Park, Colorado he thinks of when I say, ‘wide open views’ and he responded, ‘with kids, or without?’ I attempted to break them into two categories, but as you can see there are several hikes that overlap.
Kid-Friendly Hikes with A+ Views
Lily Lake Ridge
Lily Lake is approximately six miles south of Estes Park on Highway 7. (Lily Ridge shouldn’t be confused with Lily Mountain which can be accessed a quarter mile closer to town.) We hiked up Lily Ridge in late November when Lily Lake was covered in ice. The ridge provided views of the surrounding snow covered mountains including Longs Peak. The hike around the lake is .8 miles. The ridge adds another .4 miles and 100 feet of elevation.
The hike to Gem Lake starts at the Lumpy Ridge trailhead and goes through unique rock formations like Paul Bunyan’s boot. This is a moderately strenuous hike because of the steep steps that lead up to the lake. Gem Lake is small and shallow. It is framed by a rocky, sand beach on one side and sheer rock formations on the other side. The views you see along the way are expansive. The hike is 1.8 miles each way. You can read more here, Rocky Mountain Tot Goes to Gem Lake.
There is something very rewarding about making it to the summit of a 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 summit is at 10,013 ft. of elevation. The hike is 3 miles each way.
Warning – I think Eric considered this hike harder than his 17 mile trek over the Continental Divide because he was carrying a preschooler on his back. A lot of this hike was uphill, so it was a good challenge for us. The Wild Basin area of Rocky Mountain National Park is located 19 miles south of Estes Park. Most hikes we enjoy in this area begin at the Wild Basin trailhead. We wanted to try something new, so we began at the Finch Lake trailhead and we were rewarded with panoramic views. Instead of going up further to Finch Lake we headed downhill towards the Wild Basin trailhead and got to stop at some of our favorite waterfalls along the way. I wrote all about it here, Sweeping Mountain Views and Waterfalls – Our New Favorite Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park’s Wild Basin.
Advanced Level Hiking with Inspiring Views
Lily Mountain is a fun, quick summit hike with excellent 360 degree views from the top. Dogs are allowed on the trail because it is part of the Roosevelt National Forest. The trail begins relatively flat. You cross through a landside area at approximately .3 miles. After you cross, the trail climbs up steadily with a few good lookouts of the Estes Valley. The last couple hundred feet are a class 2 scramble to the summit. When Cecy was a baby we took her on this hike, but Eric generously offered to stay back with her while I hiked up the last portion. The hike is 1.8 miles each way.
We hiked to Estes Cone from the Longs Peak trailhead. It can be difficult to find parking spots during the summer, but in early October we had no issues. This was another hike that we brought our daughter on in her baby carrier, but Eric let me hike the last .7 miles on my own because we felt the trail was becoming too steep. The summit is rewarding with amazing views of Longs Peak and surrounding mountains. The hike is 3.3 miles each way. Read more about it here, Hike to Estes Cone.
Twin Sisters Peaks
Climbing up Twin Sisters Peaks was my very first hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. My husband took me on an adventurous long-weekend trip a few months after we got married. Three years later we hiked the same trail with our baby. It’s amazing how a few years can change things! Part of the trail was wiped out from a large landslide and we learned carrying a baby up to 11,413 feet of elevation was much harder than we expected. I wouldn’t recommend bringing little ones on this hike. For us, it’s a special hike that we get to do when we have kind family members willing to babysit. This hike is 7 miles round trip. I give more details here, Twin Sisters Peaks.
Standing at Bear Lake, I point up to Hallett Peak and I tell my girls, ‘Your mommy has climbed that.’ This year I’m going to climb it again, it’s on my list!
Evelyn Lily, we love you so much! Happy birthday to our sweet, tough, funny and smart little girl! I wish you a life time of reaching high and enjoying all of the amazing views.
We just got back from another wonderful family vacation in Rocky Mountain National Park. The first day we decided to hike up Deer Mountain which is one of our favorite hikes because of the amazing views. Unfortunately, this time the views were pretty hazy from forest fires in nearby Grand Lake, Colorado.
According to Rockymountaintrails.com, this hike starts at 8,940 ft in elevation at the Deer Ridge Junction. It’s 6.2 miles round trip and gains 1,210 ft of elevation.
For us, that’s a pretty tough hike with the kids in their carriers. Our girls are 3 and 1 years old, so longer hikes are a great way to help them grow in patience. I’m really proud of them! It is fun for me to look back on times we’ve hiked this before. Check out past posts:
Later in the week I got a fresh perspective of Deer Mountain by taking a 2 hour horseback riding tour at the National Park Gateway Stables which is located right next to the Fall River Visitor Center.
The ride ‘follows the Fall River to the base of Deer Mountain and Aspen Glen area into Lil Horseshoe Park and Hidden Meadows.’ I was a little nervous to ride a horse on a trail in the mountains, plus my horse was so tall! However, I’m glad I pushed myself out of my comfort zone to enjoy a new experience in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Next time, I want to bring my girls on a ride. The Cowpoke Corner Corral is run by the same company. It is located on Highway 66 near the YMCA. They have shorter pony rides to help kids get comfortable in the saddle. They also offer a one-hour ride option on horseback. You can find out more information about pricing and weight restrictions at skhorses.com.