Hiking Rocky Mountain National Park

  1. Bear Lake Area
    1. Bear Lake Loop
    2. Flattop Mountain
    3. Nymph Lake, Dream Lake and Emerald Lake
    4. Lake Hyatha
  2. Glacier Gorge Area
    1. Mills Lake
    2. The Loch
    3. Sky Pond
    4. Andrews Glacier
  3. Sprague Lake
  4. Hollowell Park
  5. Moraine Park Area
    1. Cub Lake
  6. Fall River Area
    1. Lawn Lake
  7. Kawunechee Area
    1. Lulu City/Colorado River Trail
    2. Adams Falls
    3. Timber Lake
  8. Long Peak Area
    1. Longs Peak Trail

Rocky Mountain National Park is the largest national park in Colorado and one of the most visited in the country. Over the course of many years I’ve hiked dozens of trails in this park, from the short and family-friendly Emerald Lake, to the ultra-challenging Longs Peak trail. This is a great park for hiking, but one that is best enjoyed with some pre-planning.

There are two big things to remember when hiking in RMNP or in much of Colorado. The first is that many trails are incredibly popular and the hiking season is really only about 3-4 months long. Yes, you can go snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, and it is possibly to traverse trails of deep mud, but for most people the trails really don’t open at high elevation until early June. I’ve gone hiking on Memorial Day weekend and found myself wading through deep snow more often than not.

And the first snows usually happen in mid-September. Even though these snows generally don’t leave a lot of accumulation until mid October, they can create dangerous whiteout conditions and freezing temperatures at high elevation.

With that narrow window of time in mind, most of the avid hikers are all trying to use the trails within that 3 month window, with July and August being the most popular times. Parking lots are invariably overcrowded by even 6AM. You might well find yourself parking a long way (up to a few miles) from the trailhead and either walking, or at RMNP taking a shuttle bus (usually easier and safer than walking the roads).

The second thing to remember is that any hike that passes tree line will be affected by afternoon thunderstorms that always, and I really do mean always start around 2 PM, with the first flashes of lightning happening right around noon. You must start out early at dawn to safely summit any mountain that is above tree line in Colorado. Every year people are struck by lightning and the reason is invariably because they started too late and weren’t willing to heed the warning of the gathering clouds and other hikers.

Bear Lake Area

Bear Lake Loop

This is probably the easiest (and most handicapped accessible) hike in the entire park. It’s a flat loop of about 3/4 of a mile around a high altitude lake. The steepest part of the hike is the parking lot (seriously). We like to come to Bear Lake in the winter when it is frozen over to have some fun and enjoy the winter scenery.

For most people, Bear Lake is just the starting point for many of the park’s featured hiking trails.

Flattop Mountain

This is a much more challenging hike of 4 steep miles (8 miles round trip) from a trail just off the Bear Lake loop. For first time Colorado peak climbers this is a good introduction. The trail offers good views of the surrounding peaks and lakes, but it has an honestly underwhelming (flat) summit. You can proceed onward to the peak of nearby Hallett Peak if time and weather conditions are right.

Nymph Lake, Dream Lake and Emerald Lake

These lakes are all on the Emerald Lake trail and are seen in succession. This is another very family-friendly trail that is great for kids. I hiked this trail and the Lake Hyatha trail with my then 8-year-old in a matter of a couple hours and he had a great time.

The trail to Emerald Lake will pass by Nymph Lake and Dream Lake first before arriving at the beautiful Emerald Lake after about 2 miles.

Lake Hyatha

From a side trail on the way to Emerald Lake is the slightly longer hike to Lake Hyatha. Most hikers include Hyatha in the same day hiking trip. Its another two miles round trip to this high-altitude lake with great scenery along the way.

As of today (10/09/2022) the lake has turned a very impressive blue-green color due to glacial deposits that have flowed into the lake. The color likely won’t last long so see it while you can.

Glacier Gorge Area

A couple miles before the road ends at the Bear Lake parking area, there is a smaller parking lot for Glacier Gorge. This area has some of the best trails and if you want to hike here you’ll likely find yourself 1) Driving into the park and parking at 4AM 2) Hiking down from the Bear Lake parking lot if there is room there or 3) Taking the shuttle bus. Usually we use options 2 or 3.

Mills Lake

This is a family-friendly hike to a mountain lake with a stop at Alberta Falls along the way. It’s about 2 miles mostly uphill (and if you go in the fall the aspens are amazing). I don’t have a photo of the lake here due to a camera issue at the time but we’ll be back and I’ll add it. There is a smaller Jewel Lake right behind it.

You can also continue to Black Lake another couple miles further on the trail. My youngest son wasn’t ready for this hike at the time but he’s probably old enough now.

The Loch

The Loch is a pretty impressive lake and the dividing line between family-friendly and more challenging hikes to Sky Pond and Andrews Glacier. My son and I had a great time hiking here on our way to Sky Pond which I’ll get to below.

Sky Pond

I mentioned earlier that June is still relatively snowy in RMNP and this is exactly what I mean. We tried to do this hike in June and ran into basically impassible conditions at a waterfall that you must ascend on the route to Sky Pond.

This is probably the second most popular hike (for challenging hikes) in the park and the one I want to complete soon now that my kids our old enough and we are wiser to the conditions.

Andrews Glacier

This is a hike we haven’t done but it’s on the to-do list. A lot of people do Sky Pond and Andrews Glacier at the same time. They are fairly near to each other and if you are willing to put the time in you should be able to see both within a couple hours.

Sprague Lake

This is literally the easiest hike in the entire park. It’s a 3/4 mile flat loop around a pretty lake with beautiful backdrops. We had family portraits taken here several years ago.

Hollowell Park

This is a less trafficked area on the way to the more popular Bear Lake area. From Hollowell park you can go to Bierstadt Lake, Cub Lake, or many of the trails deeper in the park. We only navigated a couple miles of trails here.

Moraine Park Area

Moraine Park has the nicest campground in the park (although you might struggle to park a travel trailer in most of the spots). Unfortunately fires have negatively affected the scenic value of the trails that lead to the higher elevations here.

View from Moraine Park Campground

Cub Lake

I honestly don’t recommend this trail. Once you get to the lake you’ll find a rather depressing scene of dead trees and a lily pad choked lake. We did have a fun marmot encounter on this trail, but I wouldn’t do it again until mother nature has had time to restore the vegetation. Since we did this hike another fire in 2020 swept through this area and I can only imagine its declined still more in scenic value.

Fall River Area

Lawn Lake

We started down this trail when our kids were young and only went a few miles. It was still an enjoyable time and we saw a weasel, which I’ve never seen before. If we do this again and make it to Lawn Lake I’ll post an update.

Kawunechee Area

On the west side of the park is the less trafficked Kawunechee Valley where most of the moose live. Since we were last there in June of 2020 fires swept through this area and we haven’t yet seen how it is recovering or the effect on the moose.

Lulu City/Colorado River Trail

It’s about three miles to Lulu City along the Colorado River Trail. When you arrive there you’ll see very very little (literally just a few rotting boards). he best thing about this trail is the scenery along the Colorado River near its origins in RMNP. A couple thousand miles later this same small river will be flowing through the Grand Canyon.

Adams Falls

Adams Falls is right behind Grand Lake and is the most accessible waterfall in the park. Trails travel further into the park interior. We’ll have to come back and try them out.

Timber Lake

My son and I hiked this trail in the afternoon of June 2020. At the time the park was nearly empty due to Covid rules. Because we had to enter the park late in the day we weren’t able to go all the way to the lake but we enjoyed great scenery and saw a woodpecker.

Long Peak Area

Longs Peak Trail

This is the premier hike in the park and the only 14er in RMNP. This is also a more challenging 14er and this 15 mile round trip hike should not be taken lightly.

I started on this trail a bit later than I should have as a young man of 25 who didn’t yet know enough about Colorado’s afternoon thundershowers. By the time I made it to the Keyhole lightning was in the sky and it was time to come back down the trail. This trail is more difficult than Mt Elbert or Mt Whitney even if it is not as high).

If you do hike this trail start early, bring plenty of water, good hiking boots and take your time. The trail is steep and narrow past the Keyhole (notch in the first picture on the right side of the summit). every year people fall to their deaths here and the weather can change rapidly so check the forecast too,

Is this every trail in RMNP? Not even close. But hopefully this guide gives you some good information to use before setting out and enjoying one of the oldest and most popular national parks.

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