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.”
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.”
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I feel joy and peace when I look at the pictures from our most recent hike to Mills Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. At 5.6 miles round trip, this was our longest and final hike during our Labor Day weekend trip.
The hike began at Bear Lake trailhead (9,475 ft elevation) with a downhill slope for the first half mile. A female elk crossed ahead of us before we continued on the trail up towards Alberta Falls.
*Alberta Falls, a popular destination, is .8 miles into the hike (200 ft gain )
The hike from Alberta Falls to Mills Lake gains another 500 feet in elevation. Sometimes it’s hard with kids to go on longer hikes, but the longer the distance the more we’ve been able to enjoy the mental, spiritual and physical benefits of hiking in the mountains. It’s worth pushing ourselves through the extra mileage and elevation gain.
Mills Lake was serene and breathtaking. The weather was sunny and crisp with the first signs of Fall appearing as patches of golden leaves trickling down the mountains.
When things get crazy with scary news, frustrating facebook feeds, dealing with sick kiddos… I’ve been trying to return to Mills Lake in my mind and linger there a while. It’s my ‘happy place.’ Do you have one?
I’m so grateful I get to return to the mountains for another hiking trip this weekend!
My Dad always said planning a trip is sometimes more fun than the actual vacation itself. I don’t know if that’s always the case, but I love to research fun, new activities to do on our famiy’s trips to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. I never run out of options because there is so much to do in this quaint mountain town and in the nearby National Park. Here are some of the top things on our Estes Park Summer Bucket List in 2017:
Eat an ice cream cone at Hayley’s
The delicious smell of waffle cones wafts out the door as you enter our favorite ice cream shop. It’s tiny inside so we choose our favorite flavor and take it outside on a stroll down the river walk. Hayley’s is located at 102 W. Elkhorn Avenue in downtown Estes Park, Colorado.
Pikas in the Park
What’s cuter than a pika? nothing! I’m so excited to participate in this new scavenger hunt activity. Just download an activity guide at visitestespark.com and start looking for 12 bronze pika sculptures in downtown Estes Park.
Be a Junior Ranger
We will head to the Fall River Visitor Center to pickup the Junior Ranger packet for kids 5 and under (they have packets designed for older kids too). The visitor center is open from 9am-5pm every day during the summer. You can pick up packets at any of the park’s visitor centers. Here is a link for more information about Rocky Mountain National Park visitors centers locations and hours. You can find more information about their Junior Park Ranger program here.
Bonus: While we are at the Fall River Visitor Center, we will enjoy a delicious breakfast and spectacular views at the attached Trailhead Restaurant. After dining, we will let our toddler play at the little playground right outside to burn off some endless energy.
Go on a boat ride
We want to spend some time on the water. Last year we rented a pontoon boat for a half hour ride on Lake Estes. This short amount of time was perfect for our little one’s first boat ride. Lake Estes is beautiful, conveniently located and rentals are fairly inexpensive. The marina website has rental information listed.
Another option is to drive over Trail Ridge Road to get to Grand Lake. The drive could take an hour or two depending on traffic. The boat rentals seem to cost a little more on this side of the mountain and I haven’t found rental options for under an hour. But, it’s always fun to try something new and we could easily make this a full day trip with stops along Trail Ridge Road and visiting attractions in the town of Grand Lake, CO. Two marinas we are considering renting boats from are Trail Ridge Marina or Grand Lake Marina.
Enjoy a Rocky Mountain waterfall
There are many amazing waterfalls in Rocky Mountain National Park. This year Chasm Falls is on the top of my list. The falls are located right off of Old Fall River Road, a one-way gravel road which travels all the way up to an elevation of 11,796 ft at the Alpine Visitors Center. The road is scenic and enjoyed at a leisurely pace (15 miles per hour speed limit). It’s a good idea to check park Road Status Reports before heading up.
Gaze at the stars
One of the best things about being further away from the city is being able to see stars light up the night sky. We are excited to attend a “Stories Behind the Moon & the Stars” program at the Moraine Valley Visitor Center in Rocky Mountain National Park. The events will take place around 8:00 on Fridays June 30, July 7, August 4 and August 11 in 2017. You can learn more at angelsabove.org
Hike to a mountain lake
It’s hard to pick a favorite mountain lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, but this year we are going to attempt a family hike to Mills Lake. The roundtrip journey is roughly six miles. We can start at the Bear Lake trailhead and pass by Alberta Falls on our way up.
We are going to grab some lawn chairs and watch a spectacular fireworks show over Lake Estes on July 4th. The event begins at 9:30PM.
What are you looking forward to this summer? I’d love to hear about your bucket list!