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!

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

8 Must-See Attractions in Rocky Mountain National Park

May 3 – 9, 2020 is National Travel and Tourism week. Given our current travel restrictions in the United States, the U.S. Travel Association decided on the theme of ‘the Spirit of Travel cannot be broken.’

Since I heard the theme, I’ve been contemplating what the ‘spirit of travel’ means to me. I ran across this quote from novelist Anita Desai.

“Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.”

Anita Desai

That’s it. I feel that a part of me is missing right now. The part of me that likes to travel, explore, find adventure, and plan trips. In a world where I can’t go to the grocery store without a face mask on, it seems silly to miss travel as much as I do. But, I do!

Must-See Attractions in Rocky Mountain National Park

It’s comforting to think the places you love become a part of who you are. In honor of travel week, I put together a list of must-see attractions in Rocky Mountain National Park.

This list includes the places I feel best represent the diverse landscapes of Rocky Mountain National Park. I chose spots that are accessible to most travelers (you don’t have to walk 10 miles to see them). Together, they showcase the dynamic spirit of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Bear Lake

Bear Lake is a popular destination in Rocky Mountain National Park. The lake sits at 9,475 ft in elevation. Behind the lake, you can see an open view of Hallett Peak. Our kids love walking the half mile loop around Bear Lake. Starting from the Bear Lake trail head, hikers can access destinations like Dream Lake, Emerald Lake, and Hallett Peak.

Bear Lake

Alberta Falls

You can hike to Alberta Falls from Bear Lake, but the shortest route starts from the Glacier Gorge trail head. The hike to the waterfall is less than a mile. After enjoying the magnificent waterfall, you can continue on to Mills Lake, The Loch, or even Sky Pond.

Alberta Falls

Moraine Park

Moraine Park is one of our favorite places in RMNP to spot herds of elk. The Big Thompson River winds through the valley. Compared to other areas of the park, Moraine Valley is lower in elevation, so we typically choose hikes in this area when we are acclimating to high altitude. I recommend a hike to The Pool which leaves from the Fern Lake trail head or a hike to Cub Lake which starts at the Cub Lake trail head.

Hike to Cub Lake in RMNP
Moraine Park

Gem Lake Trail

The Gem Lake trail begins at the Lumpy Ridge trail head. This area has unique rock formations that attract skilled rock climbers. This trail offers views of the Estes Valley and Rocky Mountains that are stunning. Another hike we enjoy in the Lumpy Ridge area is the Black Canyon trail.

Views from Gem Lake trail in Rocky Mountain National Park

Wild Basin

The Wild Basin of Rocky Mountain National Park feels a bit more rugged. You will find towering trees, vibrant wildflowers, and waterfalls. From the Wild Basin trail head, you can hike to Copeland Falls, Calypso Cascades, and Ouzel Falls.

Calypso Cascades

Trail Ridge Road

Trail Ridge Road is a scenic highway that connects Estes Park, Colorado to Grand Lake, Colorado. Along the way, there are several places to pull off to take in the sweeping views of the tundra. On this road trip, you will reach over 12,000 ft in elevation! The Alpine Visitor Center is a great place to stop for a restroom break, snack, souvenir shopping, and to learn more about the unique landscape.

Ute Trail – from Trail Ridge Road

Adams Falls

Adams Falls is located on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park near the town of Grand Lake, Colorado. The hike to Adams Falls is only .3 miles each way. There is a viewing deck for visitors to see the falls from. From this spot, you can continue on to beautiful destinations like the East Meadow.

Adams Falls

Longs Peak Viewpoint

Take a drive down Highway 7, and you will come to a vantage point of Longs Peak that is worth stopping to appreciate. At 14,259 feet in elevation, Longs Peak is the highest summit in Rocky Mountain National Park. 

Learn more about Travel and Tourism week here.

Learn more about the destinations mentioned in this article

Bear Lake: Bear Lake, Dream Lake, Hallett Peak

Alberta Falls: Alberta Falls, Mills Lake, Sky Pond

Moraine Park: Moraine Park, Cub Lake, The Pool, Fern Falls

Gem Lake: Gem Lake, Black Canyon Trail

Wild Basin: Copeland Falls, Calypso Cascades and Ouzel Falls, Finch Lake TH

Trail Ridge Road: Alpine Ridge Trail, Ute Trail

Adams Falls: Adams Falls and East Meadow, (video)

Longs Peak: The Keyhole

Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the places I am missing most. It is a part of me. Ocean views, mountain town, bustling city, desert landscape… what destination are you missing most? I hope you share in the comments.

Memorial Day in Rocky Mountain National Park

We just reserved our cabin for Memorial Day 2020 in Estes Park. Of course in the back of my mind, I’m thinking we might have to cancel it because we don’t know when Rocky Mountain National Park will reopen and the stay-at-home orders to protect us from getting and spreading Covid-19 will be lifted. Here are the official details.

Since the future is looking foggy, I’m going to take a look back at some of our favorite Memorial Day moments of the past 5 years. I’ve included tons of links to hikes we’ve done over Memorial Day weekend plus a list of the top hikes we recommend this time of year in Rocky Mountain National Park.

2015 – Rocky Mountain National Park with a baby

We took our now 5-year-old daughter to Rocky Mountain National Park for the first time. We hiked up Deer Mountain which is a great early season hike. You can read more here. When we weren’t hiking, we were looking at vacation properties and we ended up buying our first Colorado property which was a two bedroom condo at the historic Mary’s Lake Lodge. Since then, we’ve made countless family memories in our home away from home.

Deer Mountain trailhead
Deer Mountain trailhead
You will see new antlers growing on the elk in May

2016 – Rocky Mountain National Park with a Toddler

The next Memorial Day, our baby was a toddler and she could walk short distances on her own. One of our favorite early season short hikes is Sprague Lake. This loop is less than a mile. We wrote, Toddler Self-Guided Tour of Sprague Lake.

For longer hikes, we decided to graduate from our ergo baby carrier to a new kid carrier. We tried it out for the first time up to Gem Lake. We love the views on this hike. We wrote about it in, Riding High in New Kid Carrier.

But what would we do with the old baby carrier? On this trip we found out we were expecting baby #2.

family photos at sprague lake in rocky mountain national park

2017 – Family Adventures in Rocky Mountain national park

So the following Memorial Day we were back in Rocky Mountain National Park with two little girls. A highlight of our trip was spotting a moose in Sprague Lake. I wrote, Moose Spotting Makes for Memorable Morning Hike Around Sprague Lake.

We also visited the Wild Basin area of Rocky Mountain National Park. This is a less crowded area of the park which has beautiful waterfalls and wildflowers. We posted, Family Friendly Waterfall Hike in Wild Basin. Our baby gave it a thumbs up!

Waterfalls in the Wild Basin

memorial day in estes park

In the town of Estes Park, we enjoyed a ride up the Aerial Tramway. May is also a great time of year to enjoy the restaurants and shops in downtown Estes Park. We have a list of our favorite restaurants here.

Our Trip on The Estes Park Aerial Tramway
Estes Park Aerial Tramway

2018 – buying a cabin in estes park, colorado

cabin in estes park colorado
We love our new cabin – it’s a great fit for our family

The following Memorial Day we picked up the keys to our new cabin. We enjoy having a free-standing property so we don’t have to worry quite so much about our noisy little family disturbing other guests. We can’t get enough of the mountain views, sitting by the fireplace, and home cooked meals on the back deck. It’s in the rental pool at Solitude Cabins, you can learn more about renting it here.

On this Memorial Day weekend the weather was warmer, so we were able to go on some wonderful hikes to Fern Falls and Dream Lake.

Fern Falls
Snow hike in Rocky Mountain National Park
Hike to Dream Lake in late May with a few patches of slippery snow near the lake

2019 – Epic road trip to new mexico and colorado

Last year we made our way to Rocky Mountain National Park on Memorial Day weekend, but first we went to Santa Fe, New Mexico. I wrote about traveling with kids to Santa Fe here, and here. Our road trip continued with an afternoon at the Great Sand Dunes National Park which is located in southern Colorado. We spent the night in Buena Vista, Colorado (which was gorgeous) before heading up to lunch at a brewery in Boulder, Colorado and finally Estes Park. During our time in Estes, we hiked in the Upper Beaver Meadows and on a snowy stroll around Bear Lake. My husband enjoyed a solo hike on Hermit Park’s Kruger Rock trail.

Upper Beaver Meadows
Snowy hike around Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
Views from Kruger Rock trail

best Memorial Day HikES in Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park, colorado

> Deer Mountain – 6.2 miles roundtrip with great views.
> Sprague Lake – half mile loop with benches, views and wildlife.
> Bear Lake – half mile loop, higher (9,475 feet) elevation could mean snow
> Nymph Lake & Dream Lake – .5 miles to Nymph Lake, 1.1 miles to Dream.
> Gem Lake – 1.6 miles each way. The views on the way up are the highlight.
> The Pool & Fern Falls – 1.7 miles to the Pool and 2.6 miles to Fern Falls.
> Kruger Rock – 2 miles each way. Hermit Park has separate fee from RMNP.
> Copeland Falls & Calypso Cascades – short waterfall hikes in the Wild Basin.
> Upper Beaver Meadows – 1 mile hike in lower (8,437 feet) elevation.

tips for memorial day weekend in rocky mountain national park

> Scenic drives such as Trail Ridge Road are open seasonally based on weather conditions. Trail Ridge Road typically opens the last week of May. You can get up-to-date information by calling (970) 586-1222.
> Pack layers for changing weather. Higher elevations typically get chillier.
> Expect snow, ice, mud…really anything is possible. Waterproof gear and footwear are helpful. We’ve also used trekking poles to help navigate snow covered trails.
> Estes Park hosts an annual art festival on Memorial Day weekend, for more information about events check out visitestespark.com