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

Lunch with a View: 5 Great Spots to Enjoy a Picnic in Rocky Mountain National Park This Fall

It’s officially fall! I can’t think of a better way to take in the splendor of the autumn colors than a picnic in Rocky Mountain National Park. There are over 25 picnicking areas listed on the National Park’s website. Here are some of our favorites:

Upper beaver meadows

The Upper Beaver Meadows area is a new find for us this year. It is quickly becoming one of our favorite picnic spots because it seems less crowded than other areas of the park, has gorgeous views, and fun rocks for our kids to climb around. There are 10 picnic tables available. There is also a vault toilet (which seems important to point out to my fellow potty trainers).

Upper Beaver Meadows picnic
Upper Beaver Meadows picnic area

You can read more about Upper Beaver Meadows hiking trails here.

Lily Lake

Views of Longs Peak and Estes Cone reflect off the water of Lily Lake. Lily Lake is one of my favorite spots to practice photography. You can take a stroll around the lake and enjoy a picnic at one of the 4 picnic tables. An additional 12 tables are available for group rental a quarter mile down the trail. The group picnic spot feels more secluded. There is a vault toilet in the parking area.

Lily Lake in the autumn, Rocky Mountain National Park
Lily Lake in the autumn

Lily Lake is one of the spots we visit most often, here is one of our oldest posts about Lily Lake and here is a post I wrote last month.

sprague lake

If I had to choose just one picnic spot, I’d recommend Sprague Lake. The views of the golden aspens and continental divide can’t be beat. We often see people bird-watching and fishing in this lake. We’ve also spotted a moose here. Plus, there are 27 picnic spots and several benches by the lake where you could eat your lunch right on the water. There are summer flush toilets/winter vault toilets in the parking area.

Sprague Lake in the fall. Rocky Mountain National Park top destinations
Sprague Lake

Want to know more about Sprague Lake? I posted about it here.

coyote valley

My first few choices were on the East side of Rocky Mountain National Park near the town of Estes Park, Colorado. Coyote Valley is on the West side of the park. Coyote Valley has a family-friendly hiking trail along the Colorado River in the Kawuneeche Valley. This is a great place to spot wildlife. There are 7 picnic tables available. There are no toilets.

picnics in rocky mountain national park
Coyote Valley picnic

Read more about the Coyote Valley here.

lake irene

Lake Irene is located off of Trailridge Road on the West side of Rocky Mountain National Park. The lake is mostly surrounded with evergreen trees, so the fall colors won’t be as visible. However, if you are going on a scenic drive and are looking for a peaceful place to stop, this is an ideal spot. There are 8 picnic tables. There is also a vault toilet near the parking lot.

Lake Irene Rocky Mountain National Park
Lake Irene

We recently enjoyed a hike around Lake Irene. You can read all about it here.

building your ITINERARY

Some of our most popular posts include 1 day itineraries of what to do in Rocky Mountain National Park. What I appreciate most about these top picnic destinations is the ability to ‘park and play’. By this I mean, once you get to your destination you can add on a hike, bird-watching, fishing, photography, scenic drive, or other outdoor recreational activity to transform a simple picnic into an enjoyable half-day adventure.

Serene Family-Friendly Walk Around Lake Irene in Rocky Mountain National Park

Lake Irene is located off of Trail Ridge Road approximately 5 miles south of the Alpine Visitors Center. This peaceful lake is one of our favorite spots in Rocky Mountain National Park to eat a picnic lunch.

Amenities include a small parking lot, restrooms, and several picnic tables.

Lake Irene is located off of Trail Ridge Road approximately 5 miles south of the Alpine Visitors Center.

You can take an easy stroll around the lake.

Lake Irene Overlook trail

A little beyond the lake you will find signage pointing to an overlook.

Lake Irene Overlook

From the overlook, you can see a meadow with mountains in the distance. I’ll admit that this view isn’t the most spectacular you will find in Rocky Mountain National Park, but the competition here is world-class.

Quiet place within rocky mountain national park

The area is lush and green.

Lake Irene offers family-friendly hiking destination

Although the trail is not accessible for wheelchairs or strollers, the short hike does not gain much elevation. Our preschooler was able to walk most of the .8 mile distance on her own.

the trail around Lake Irene is surrounded by pine trees

With some help from Dad.

Kids cross over wooden bridges on the trail that goes around Lake Irene

Our two-year-old also enjoyed walking for portions of the trail. For our young family, Lake Irene offers a serene spot to enjoy lunch and just enough adventure to ensure the whole family is having a fun and memorable experience.

Lake Irene is located on the West side of RMNP. Here are some additional posts that feature destinations in this section of the park:

4 Great Reasons to Visit Grand Lake, Colorado with Kids

A Perfect Picnic at Coyote Valley

Peaceful Hike to East Meadow in Rocky Mountain National Park

Great Reasons to Visit Grand Lake, Colorado with Kids

One of my friends recently asked if I would recommend bringing two young kids to Grand Lake, Colorado.

Grand Lake, Colorado

My answer is yes! The mountain town of Grand Lake has a ton to offer families who are seeking outdoor adventures. Grand Lake is located on the West side of Rocky Mountain National Park. If you love water, you will enjoy having Grand Lake, Shadow Mountain Lake, and Lake Granby all within a half hour drive.

Typically when we are visiting Grand Lake, we are coming from Estes Park and have been in the car for a long time. Town Square Park is a beautiful green space with a nice playground. The park is wonderful to burn off the energy from our car ride.

Ice cream in charming downtown Grand Lake, Colorado

Downtown Grand Lake has numerous shops and restaurants to explore. We love grabbing an ice cream cone and walking along the shore of Grand Lake, the largest natural lake in Colorado.

The mountain lakes are wonderful, but I’m also impressed by the colorful displays of flowers around town. It feels very welcoming. Local residents seem to take great pride in their beautiful home.

Grand Lake Colorado is simply beautiful!

grand lake is less busy

Grand Lake is typically less busy than Estes Park, which is located on the East side of the national park. This means you will most likely benefit from shorter lines at the national park entrance and less trouble finding parking spots downtown.

outdoor adventures abound

Outdoor adventures in Grand Lake, Colorado include water recreation such as boating, swimming, sailing, and paddle boarding.

Grand Lake beach

Although there are adventures to be had year-round in Grand Lake, some top attractions are only open seasonally including Trail Ridge Road. The scenic highway typically opens at the end of May depending on the weather. You can learn about road conditions on the National Park’s website.

Hikes Near Grand Lake, Colorado

Some of our favorite family-friendly hiking spots near Grand Lake include:

Coyote Valley
Lake Irene
Adams Falls and East Meadow

If you are looking for a challenge, you can cross over the continental divide from Bear Lake to Grand Lake. You can read about the 18 mile hike here.

more to explore!

There are many hikes, picnic spots, and attractions we haven’t had a chance to explore yet including the Holzwarth Historic Site.

Did you know Rocky Mountain National Park has its own podcast? We listened to an episode titled, “Getting Wild on Rocky’s West Side” which was a great resource for learning more about Holzwarth. Additional resources when planning a trip to Grand Lake include grandlakechamber.com and visitgrandcounty.com.

Grand Lake is great for families
Grand Lake – toddler fun