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

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

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.

Our Magical Snow Vacation in Estes Park, Colorado

Waking up to a winter wonderland in Estes Park, Colorado wasn’t what we expected when we planned our trip for October. We expected crisp autumn weather with blue skies and golden aspens. This trip took us by surprise but we had a wonderful time getting cozy by the fireplace in our cabin, taking in the views, playing in Rocky Mountain National Park and enjoying all the shops and treats downtown Estes Park has to offer.

Snow in Estes Park Colorado
Snow in Estes Park Colorado

Aspen in Colorado

We expected to see the golden aspens. The contrast with the snow made them even more breathtaking.

Aspen in snow in estes park colorado

Shopping in Downtown Estes Park

We got all bundled up to play in the snow.  Then I realized in the rush of packing I forgot to bring along gloves so we purchased some in downtown Estes Park. I always love an excuse to go shopping in Estes, so while we were down there I also picked out a cute hat for my husband to ‘surprise’ me with on Christmas.

family friendly trips to colorado

Sledding in Hidden Valley

Our favorite snow adventure was going sledding in Hidden Valley which is located inside of Rocky Mountain National Park. We were worried that there might not be enough snow, but there was just enough to have a blast! We had the hill to ourselves and lucked out with a gorgeous day. The last time we went to Hidden Valley it was very windy and cold! I can say without a doubt it’s the most epic place I’ve ever gone sledding. Plus there is ample parking and a nice shelter with restrooms.

sledding joy in rocky mountain national park

Warm up with Hot Chocolate

Getting hot chocolate at Trailhead Restaurant on Fall River Road was another big hit with my girls. Besides the ample whipped cream, they also enjoyed spending time on the playground right outside.

hot chocolate at trailhead restaurant

Standing on the restaurant’s back deck we got a family photo with ALL OF US LOOKING! I think this is the only one we’ve captured this year. You can basically count on it being our Christmas card.

family photo in estes park colorado

Winter Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park

You can’t go to the mountains without getting in a little hiking so we took a stroll around Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. This short loop trail is one of our favorites because it is very toddler friendly and the views are beyond amazing. This time the lake was half-frozen and the trails were half frozen too.

sprague lake half frozen

The trail around Sprague Lake was nothing compared to the slipping and sliding my sister-in-law and I did on our way up to Bear Lake which is a little higher up the mountain. It was too slippery to carefully carry the girls up to see the beautiful views. That’s Hallet Peak in the background. Yep, I climbed that once!

bear lake in the snow

Elk in Estes Park

Another reason to visit Estes Park in October is to experience elk rut season. They didn’t seem to mind the early snow.

elk season in estes park colorado

We had to cut our trip a few days short because more snow was expected and we didn’t want to get stuck. Well… I don’t know how much I would have minded getting stuck in winter paradise, but we had to get back to work and school.

national park service snow baby

Even though it was cut short, I’d say that our trip was a snow ball. Get it!? Okay that’s my Mom humor coming out.

snow ball

Have you been to Estes Park in the winter? Let us know your favorite snow day activities!