Best Day Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park

Backpacking
Oct 2019

If the Colorado Rockies are on your list then you’ll surely want to hone down the best trails in Rocky Mountain National Park. The park encompasses 415 square miles of pristine alpine wilderness and a daunting 300+ miles of hiking trails, so there are a few big questions on every hiker or backpacker’s mind.

Common Questions about Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park

1. What are the Rocky Mountain National park must see hikes?

2. Where is the best backcountry camping?

3. When should I visit Rocky Mountain National Park?

Before delving into trails it’s worth mentioning a few important safety considerations. Trailheads in Rocky Mountain National Park often start near 7,800 feet in elevation and quickly climb much higher. It is important to know the symptoms of altitude sickness and take care of yourself by staying hydrated, avoiding alcohol before hiking, and giving yourself time to acclimate. It is also very important to keep a safe distance from wildlife and never feed them or leave food waste behind. This is not only your safety but also the well-being of the animals that call Rocky Mountain National Park home.

 

Day Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park

Moderate Day Hike to the Loch in Rocky Mountain National Park
The Loch, Rocky Mountain National Park

Hike to the Loch

Selecting that perfect Rocky Mountain National Park must see day hike can be challenging! If you’re after something moderate but rewarding a visit to The Loch, an iconic subalpine lake framed epicly by the Sharktooth (12,530’) and Mt. Taylor (13,651’), won’t disappoint. For more of a challenge, consider extending the hike past The Loch and on to Lake of Glass and Sky Pond adding another 2.7 miles and nearly 700 more feet of elevation gain.

See More Details about these two hikes

Hike Long’s Peak

Now I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the pinnacle of day hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park, a Longs Peak ascent. For very fit and acclimated hikers that are comfortable with more than a little rock scrambling, the Long’s Peak Keyhole Route takes hikers to the tallest point in Rocky Mountain National Park. Accomplishing this daunting task as a day hike requires a very early alpine-start to get you 7.1 miles and 5,525 vertical feet to the summit before the afternoon thunderstorms roll in. The Long’s Peak Keyhole Route is challenging, and I encourage you to do your homework, but it can be a very rewarding hike! 

Check out the Longs Peak Hiking Guide here.

 

Easy Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park

Hike to Ouzel Falls via Wild Basin Trail

A moderate to advanced hike isn’t for everyone or every trip, so how about the easy hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park? If you find yourself near Estes Park and need a good half day option then Ouzel Falls is a natural pick. From the Wild Basin Trailhead you head out on the Wild Basin Trail on a clear and well defined path for a 5.3 mile round trip hike with only 921’ of elevation gain. While Ouzel Falls is the focal point of this hike you can also take a short detour to Copeland Falls and Calypso Cascades just off the Wild Basin Trail.

See more details about Ouzel Falls

Hike to Ouzel Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park
Ouzel Falls

Bay Lake Area Loop and Alberta Falls

If time is money then time spent hiking must be gold, for the biggest value for your time try the Bear Lake Area Loop. Starting from the Bear Lake Trailhead head counter-clockwise towards Dream Lake where you’ll be rewarded with jaw dropping views of Hallet Peak and Flattop Mountain. Don’t get sucked into any breathtaking destination for too long though because there are more to come! Not far after Dream Lake the trail crosses over Chaos Creek before forking at the Haiyaha Lake cutt-off. Trust me, Haiyaha Lake is worth the small detour. Just when you think you’re nearly back to the trailhead the Bear Lake Area Loop delivers again with spectacular views of Alberta Falls, a common destination for painters and photographers alike. I like to end a trek around the Bear Lake Area Loop with a relaxing picnic lunch along the shores of Bear Lake.

See more details about easy hiking options

 

Backpacking Routes in Rocky Mountain National Park

Hike the Continental Divide, Camp at Thunder Lake

By now you’ve probably figured out that I’m a sucker for a good alpine lake and fortunately Rocky Mountain National Park delivers again. Whether you’re figuratively or literally trying to get your feet wet backpacking in the Rockies a visit to Thunder Lake should be towards the top of your list. If possible two nights camped at Thunder Lake will give you a full layover day to venture out and on to Lion Lakes and Snowbank Lake and all the way to the Continental Divide. What better way to remember how small we are than straddling the Continental Divide?

See more info about backpacking to Thunder Lake

Backcountry Epic, hiking North Inlet

If you’re willing to make the longer journey down to Grand Lake, Colorado, then the North Inlet/Tonohutu Creek Loop is an epic and worthwhile backpacking route. By planning one night camping in the front-country at Willow Creek Campground you can get an earlier start into the backcountry. I recommend planning at least 2 nights in the backcountry to complete this route. Highlights include Flattop Mountain, Tonohutu Creek, lush meadows, and ample wildlife. REI Adventures offers a guided trip like this if you’re not confident going it alone.

See the route on hiking project

Hikers stand against Rocky Mountain landscape on backpacking trip

 

How to Get to Rocky Mountain National Park

Getting to Rocky Mountain National Park is fairly straightforward from the Denver Metro area. The best way to get there is to fly into Denver and drive to Estes Park or to the trailhead of your choice. From Denver proper, the drive to Estes Park will take about 1.5-2 hours.

Where to Stay Near the National Park

If you’d like to add a few day trips to Rocky Mountain National Park to your time in Denver, consider staying in Boulder or Fort Collins, Colorado – the drive to Estes Park from both of these twons is only about 1 hour. Boulder and Fort Collins set you up for a pleasant hour to hour and a half drive in to the more popular trailheads. If you’d prefer to be closer to the action and really immersed in Rocky Mountain National Park stay at Glacier Basin Campground or in the town of Estes Park, Colorado.

If you grew up in the 90’s like I did you probably remember hearing a lot of TLC on the radio. While those ladies had some great messaging on the war on drugs we should disregard some of the lyrics to the popular chorus:

“Don’t go chasing waterfalls,
Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to,
I know that you’re gonna have it your way or nothing at all,
But I think you’re moving to fast…”

I want you to know that’s okay if you:

  1. Do go chasing waterfalls
  2. Don’t stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to

The last two lines ring true and I hope this blog helps you with finding a trail to hike in Rocky Mountain National Park, and hiking it your way or not at all. And remember, don’t move to fast while your body is acclimating to the high elevation.