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.
My husband Eric and I were thrilled to have the opportunity to go on a more challenging hike during our last trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. His amazing sister not only offered to watch the girls for the morning, but also sat through hours of us deliberating about which hike we would choose. There are so many hikes that have been on our wish-list, it was difficult to decide. We finally agreed to attempt Sky Pond because we had hiked to Timberline Falls in the past, but for weather-related reasons, had never made it beyond the falls.
We woke up early to get to the park by 6:00am. We found a parking spot at Bear Lake and began our hike towards Alberta Falls which is one of the most popular destinations in RMNP.
We continued on the trail past the falls towards The Loch.
We arrived at The Loch, a peaceful lake surrounded by pine trees and filled with beautiful trout. We followed along the right bank. This is a popular destination, so it was nice to be there early and have it largely to ourselves.
Beyond The Loch you pass over a mountain stream. This is a relatively flat section of the trail.
Soon the hike becomes more challenging as you quickly gain elevation heading towards Timerline Falls. In this section we spotted female elk and a marmot.
We arrived at Timberline Falls, a breathtaking waterfall with sweeping views.
The first time I saw the sign pointing to Sky Pond, I thought it must be a mistake. I didn’t expect to hike up a running waterfall.
We got some good advice from Erik Stensland’s hiking guide to climb ‘up the gash in the rock’ and ‘don’t worry about getting wet; just go slowly.’ This proved to be a helpful tip, and even though our feet got fairly wet, it made for a manageable scramble.
After we made it up the waterfall, the path continued on to the Lake of Glass.
I found it a little difficult to see the trail between this lake and Sky Pond, but the scenery around us was nothing short of spectacular.
When we finally made it to Sky Pond, I was very excited to rest and eat a snack before heading back. However, it was hard to fully soak in the beauty as I was feeling anxious, knowing that the way back down the waterfall would be more challenging than the way up.
It wasn’t graceful – I mostly slid on my backside so that I could see the foot holds ahead of me. Once safely down, the adrenaline (and relief!) left us feeling invigorated, so we decided to extend our adventure.
Instead of heading back the way we came, at the Loch/Mills Lake trail junction, we followed a loop trail to Lake Haiyaha, which is a beautiful green color and is studded with boulders. This section of trail was quiet and peaceful, but it was longer and more challenging than I expected, adding to the total elevation gain of the hike. (We climbed a total of approx. 2,200 ft.)
After enjoying Lake Haiyaha, we continued down the mountain. The route gave us a glimpse of Dream Lake before rejoining the busier trail down to Nymph Lake, which was covered in beautiful pond lilies. From there it was a short walk back to the Bear Lake trailhead.
Eric wore a Garmin watch that tracked our hike from the Bear Lake trailhead to Sky Pond and back down via the alternative route by Lake Haiyaha. The total distance of our hike was just over 10.5 miles long.
This is now one of my all time favorite hikes. Not only did we get to see some of the most beautiful lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park, we also got to climb through a waterfall, an experience I’ll never forget!