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

Hike to Arch Rocks and The Pool in Rocky Mountain National Park

The hike to The Pool in Rocky Mountain National Park is one of our favorite early season hikes. It’s lower starting elevation (8,150 ft) typically means there is less snow than other areas of the park.

The hike begins at the Fern Lake trail head. There is a small non-paved parking area. The road is narrow for two-way vehicle traffic. There is shuttle service and some additional parking .8 miles away from the trail head.

On our late-May hike we enjoyed spotting spring wildflowers, a busy humming bird, and a garter snake.

Arch rocks

40 foot vertical rocks called Arch Rocks are a main attraction along the way to The Pool. The rocks are 1.2 miles from the trail head.

Arch Rocks

big thompson river

Walking along the Big Thompson River is another highlight of this hike.

The Pool

A wooden bridge crosses over the river. This video shows the water gathering and powerfully flowing into the Big Thompson River. The Pool is 1.7 miles from the Fern Lake trail head. If you turn around at this point, the hike is a total of 3.4 miles. On this trip, we chose to turn around at this point.

Love loop hikes? From The Pool you can split off towards Cub Lake and head back around to the Cub Lake trail head. The final section of the hike between the Cub Lake trail head and the Fern Lake trail head is on a connecting road. This loop is 6 miles.

Fern Falls

Fern Falls

Another option to continue the hike is to make your way up to Fern Falls. To hike to the waterfall, you will add approximately 1 mile each way. Most of this section is uphill. If you are up for the challenge, the waterfall is worth the effort!

Fantastic Family Hike to Fern Falls

Fern Falls with a Fussy Baby

fern lake

The name sake of this trail is Fern Lake, which is 3.8 miles from the trail head. It has spectacular views of Notch Top mountain.

Fern Lake

The Fern Lake trail head is a launching point to many memorable destinations in Rocky Mountain National Park including Arch Rocks, The Pool, Fern Falls and Fern Lake.

on my mind: Ticks in Rocky Mountain National park

Well, it happened! After five years of living tick free, we found several ticks on my daughter during our most recent trip to Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park, Colorado. We were playing in some areas that had tall grass, so it’s not very surprising, but I just wanted to take this opportunity to remind everyone who is out enjoying the great outdoors to be checking themselves and their kids. Here is some additional information about ticks found in RMNP.

Make your reservations now: Trail Ridge Road is Open

Trail Ridge Road is a scenic highway that connects Estes Park, Colorado to Grand Lake, Colorado. The road is located within Rocky Mountain National Park, so a park pass and time-entry permit are required to travel on this scenic roadway which will take you above tree-line and into the alpine tundra. Trail Ridge Road opened on June 4, 2020. Here is an article from Estes Park News about the annual ribbon cutting celebration.

New! Visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park can obtain a time-entry permit through Recreation.gov. 

The Keyhole – One Slow Step at a Time

9,500 people per year climb to Longs Peak. I am not one of them.

At 14,259 feet in elevation, Longs Peak is the highest summit in Rocky Mountain National Park. Years ago (7 to be exact), my husband and I took a trip out to Colorado with some of our best friends. We went on several amazing hikes during our vacation. The grand finale was our hike to the Keyhole. I wanted to see what the guys had been bragging about when they talked at length about their epic adventure up Longs Peak.

I started out in a cranky mood. I don’t like waking up early.

There are several routes of varying difficulties that lead to Longs Peak. The Keyhole is the most popular. The National Park Service recommends to start before 3 am in the morning. You will see a lot of head lamps heading up the mountain when you start that early. The average time to complete the summit and return trip is 10-15 hours. You have to start early so that you miss afternoon thunderstorms. (Longs Peak via keyhole route)

It’s only an adventure if you travel through a Goblin Forest… that’s what I always say.
My life-long adventure buddy

Since we weren’t going to the summit, we had a little more flexibility with our start time, but we still had to start early because we would be above tree-line and more vulnerable to lightening for a large portion of our hiking day. The hike to the Keyhole is approximately 12 miles round trip. (add 1.5 miles/way to Longs Peak)

Boulder field

Once you arrive at the Boulder Field, the Keyhole is in sight. At this elevation, each step was slow. It took a lot of energy to keep moving and we had to be careful to choose our steps wisely to avoid turning an ankle.

Stepping over rocks soon turned into more of a scramble up them.

Scramble to Keyhole

Finally, I climbed up the Keyhole and looked out over the vast views on the other side. It was beautiful! I could see the trail continuing on my left side. There were large bullet marks painted on rocks to help people stay on the trail. If you are politely wondering why I didn’t just go the extra 1.5 miles to the summit, the answer is I’m scared of the exposure. I have a lot of respect for everyone who ventures on after seeing the drop off. I was ready to turn back.

I’m writing about this hike 7 years later because I woke up this morning facing another day of being stuck at home because of the coronavirus. Living through this fear and uncertainty is something I never imagined. I started thinking of the tough things I’ve done in my life:

-The first few weeks of track practice in high school

-Running a half marathon

-Biking 150 miles for the MS 150

-Child birth

-Climbing to the Keyhole

I may be smiling, but this picture captured my relief from getting down from the Keyhole.

My list isn’t all that impressive or unique, but it helps me remember that I can do this. I can reflect back on when I purposely pushed myself to do more than I thought was possible. I think the ‘Keyhole lesson’ for me is trying to take one moment at a time, using the legitimate fear I’m feeling to take appropriate caution, relying on family and friends for pep talks (the people who still love me when I get cranky), and remembering to appreciate the beautiful moments too.

*I found information about the Keyhole route on the National Park Service’s website.