The Most Underrated Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. Following the Historic Ute Trail.

Basically nothing in life gets me more excited than discovering a new trail for my family to hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s like finding a secret path or a hidden paradise. I don’t know how I skipped over the Ute Trail during my years of scouring hikes in guidebooks and even passed by the trail dozens of times in our car. I guess sometimes you miss things right in front of you when you are distracted by amazing views or in our case, toddlers in the backseat.

The Ute Trail is located right off of Trail Ridge Road, a scenic highway that connects Estes Park, Colorado to Grand Lake, Colorado. Parking is limited to a handful of cars that can fit into a pull-off area between Rainbow Curve and Forest Canyon Overlook.

We dressed in warm layers because the temperature drops as you rise above treeline. The Ute Trail begins at 11,430 ft of elevation which is incredible! On the tundra, the sun shines bright and the wind can be intense. We lucked out with a beautiful day.

Rocky Mountain National Park Ute Trail

We accidentally locked most of our hiking gear including boots and kid carrier in our storage closet, so we picked this hike for the girls to do (mostly) on their own because it’s basically flat.

views from Ute Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park

Both girls did an amazing job, especially our 3-year-old. She wanted to keep going and going. We decided to turn around approximately a mile into our hike, making this a two mile trek for us. Rockymountainhikingtrails.com lists this as a 4 mile round trip hike which gives us a great goal for our next adventure up on the Ute Trail.

Family Friendly hike in Rocky Mountain National Park

The sweeping views are inspiring, but I also love witnessing the intricate plant life that survives in this harsh climate.

Alpine Tundra Rocky Mountain National Park

I can just imagine the the Arapaho and Ute tribes passing here between their summer and winter hunting grounds as they did so many years ago. The National Park Service has placed a historical information plaque at the start of the trail.

Historic Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado

We spotted wildlife including marmots, pikas and birds. Oh hey, there little guy!

Wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park Tundra

Trail Ridge Road is open seasonally. You can check road status reports on the National Park Service’s website here. In the high elevation take extra caution with weather that can produce lightening or icy conditions.

The Ute Trail is one of my new favorite family-friendly hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park. If you are looking for more amazing hikes, check out our favorite hikes under two miles.

A Trail Less Traveled

Rocky Mountain National Park is a popular vacation destination. The month of July is especially busy. According to an article in the Coloradoan, a record 912,507 people visited the park in July 2016.

In my last post I mentioned that crowds were one of my least favorite parts of our July trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. One of the solutions for us was finding less popular trails. One morning we woke up a little late and couldn’t find parking at Bear Lake, Glacier Gorge, Bierstadt or even the Park and Ride. I’m glad we didn’t give up looking, because we eventually found a spot near Sprague Lake.

We decided to give it a go and hike from Sprague Lake to the Glacier Gorge trailhead via the Glacier Creek Trail. If you are in the parking lot and looking towards the lake, you will find the trailhead to your right. From here, head uphill and follow signs leading to Bear Lake.

The further we hiked, the prettier this trail became. Two miles in we discovered a little lake covered in lily pads blooming with yellow flowers. My daughter nicknamed it Minnie Mouse Lake.

Lake on Glacier Creek Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park

We also passed over a wooden bridge with a roaring mountain stream classified as a ‘loud waterfall’ by our toddler.

Roaring Mountain Stream in Rocky Mountain National Park

We turned around 2.8 miles into our hike. If we continued we would have made it to Bear Lake or Alberta Falls in less than a mile. The return hike was even more enjoyable because it was a downhill slope.

Trail Signs Rocky Mountain National Park

We really enjoyed our hike and will keep this less trafficked trail in mind for days when the park is busy!

Hiking with Kids Rocky Mountain National Park

Hiking Gear Highlight – Hiking Boots: The dusty first section of this hike inspired me to ditch my running shoes and buy new hiking boots with good wool hiking socks. In downtown Estes Park I noticed a sale sign on the window of Plum Creek Shoe Station. The selection of boots and customer service was amazing. I was given options in my price range that fit the hikes we go on. I’m so glad I bought from a local shop so I could ask questions rather than buying online. Having good hiking boots and socks that fit makes a world of difference!

Family Friendly Waterfall Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park’s Wild Basin

Rocky Mountain National Park’s Wild Basin Area is the setting for some of our favorite waterfall hikes. Located 19 miles south of Estes Park on Highway 7, the Wild Basin is more remote. There is no shuttle service to this area of the park. The roads are narrow and in places pretty rough.

The bumpy drive is worth it.  We love this area of the park – it feels like an adventure and the hike to Copeland Falls is only .3 miles from the Wild Basin trailhead.

There is an upper falls and lower falls, go to both!

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It’s amazing how much beauty you can see on such a short hike. I love the waterfalls and towering trees. I enjoy the contrast of the different color tree barks and spring leaves. It’s a short, relatively flat hike so I try to notice every detail. IMG_8310

My husband was patient while I tried to ‘capture’ the beauty of this moss type plant. Then I remembered he was carrying a 2 year old on his shoulders, so I hiked a little faster for him.

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After Copeland Falls we decided to continue our hike towards Calypso Cascades.IMG_8314

…but we stopped a little short when we felt a few rain drops and noticed gathering dark clouds.

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This picturesque bridge is located just beyond the trail sign and made a great stopping point at 1.5 miles in. Calypso Cascades is stunning, so if you have time to go I highly recommend it.

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Our sleepy little one gives this waterfall hike a thumbs up! IMG_8341

What are your favorite waterfall hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park? Do you ever stop a little shy of your goal destination? 

1 Day Itinerary in Rocky Mountain National Park

It’s no secret that I love Rocky Mountain National Park. There is so much to do and see that it’s really hard to narrow down the highlights to a one-day itinerary, but if you just have one day to spend here’s my suggestions:

Breakfast in Estes Park

Start early and get fueled up on good food and good coffee. My favorite sit-down breakfast is Notchtop Bakery & Cafe. You can stare out the windows at the Rockies while you eat. They have a fun kids menu – our toddler likes their pancakes! We also love Kind Coffee which opens even earlier. I enjoy their oatmeal, breakfast burritos and of course coffee!

Breakfast at Notchtop

Family Friendly Hiking

If you are feeling acclimated to the elevation, head up to Bear Lake. Take a nice stroll around the lake and capture a Christmas card worthy family picture with Hallett Peak behind you. From there you can hike to Alberta Falls for some more great family photo ops. Hike on to beautiful Mills Lake or The Loch if you want more of a challenge.

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Lunch in Estes Park

Lunch time! Call ahead and order a sandwich to-go from Scratch – Deli & Bakery.  Their deli is small but the Turkey-Bacon-Avocado sandwich is huge and amazing. It’s great for a picnic on Lake Estes where kids can enjoy the fun playground next to the marina.

Lake Estes 

Lake Estes Marina offers afternoon activities like renting pontoon boats or pedal carts. They are typically open May through October, but we’ve learned it’s good to call ahead to verify.

lake estes

Estes Park Riverwalk

From there you can walk through downtown Estes Park along the river walk and enjoy local shopping and a treat. I’m a huge fan of ice cream and we love Hayley’s.

celebrating Estes Cone with ice cream cone

Wildlife Spotting

Early evening is a great time to spot wildlife. Take a drive through Rocky Mountain National Park and make sure to search for elk in the Moraine Valley and near Horseshoe Park/Sheep Lakes.

Elk in Estes Park

Dinner in Estes Park

For dinner go to Poppy’s Pizza & Grill and sit outside by the river. They have good pizza and an impressive drink selection which includes locally brewed beer.

poppys pizza estes park

I hope this sample itinerary is a helpful starting point. Once you spend a day in beautiful Rocky Mountain National Park, I’m sure you’ll be planning your next trip back soon.