Rocky Mountain National Park is comprised of 415 square miles of beautiful protected mountain environment. Roaring waterfalls, spring fed lakes, amazing mountain views, and a verity of animals offer visitors at this park a unique and memorable experience. Check out these 7 Hikes you can’t miss in Rocky Mountain National Park.
A Few Basics:
- Park Fees- You can check out current fees here. Depending on how long your visit is, it may be worth purchasing a week or year-long pass. If you plan on seeing multiple national parks over the course of a year, consider a year long pass.
- Pick Your Season-The park is open 365 days a year but not all trails, roads, and sites are accessible during the colder months. According to the National Park Service website, summer and fall are the busiest times in the park. I went towards the end of May and a lot of trails were still covered in snow.
- Park and Ride- In an effort to reduce traffic on the Bear Lake Road and improve trail access, the park provides a shuttle service. On Bear Lake Road, prior to the road gaining significant incline, there is a park and ride. I can’t recommend utilizing this service enough. The shuttles stop at most trail heads on Bear Lake Road. By taking the bus, you are free to explore the paths connecting the different trails and do not have to worry about returning to one specific trail head. Park and Ride is ideal for large motorhomes, buses, and travel trailers as the have designated spaces for longer vehicles.
Top Rocky Mountain National Park Hiking Trails
Distance: Less then 1 mile loop
Difficulty: Easy- this trail is ADA friendly according to park resources.
The Sprague Lake trail is a combination of hard pack gravel and wooden footbridges. The parking area beside Sprague Lake has picnic tables and restroom facilities making this the perfect spot to grab a quick bite or rest. Photographers flock to the lake in the early morning hours to capture the reflection of the mountains on the smooth water resulting in some magnificent pictures. I didn’t luck out with those types of views but the lake was still really pretty.
Unlike other trails, Sprague Lake offers multiple educational signs detailing the history of the area, how the lake got its name and what local wildlife you may encounter.
Distance: 2.5 miles one -way
The Alberta Falls trail starts at the Glacier Gorge trail head. This trail is accessible by the shuttle bus services and is quite a ways up Bear Lake Road. A brief section overlaps with the Glacier Creek Trail but there are well-marked signs pointing hikers towards Alberta Falls. After roughly 3/4 of a mile on the trail, hikers will catch their first glimpses of Alberta Falls. From there the trail winds its way next to the creeks and waterfalls for the full 2.5 miles.
Along the trail are many different paths worn in the brush by other hikers. These paths often take you closer to the creek and the falls. Each hiker will have to make their own decisions about which paths to take and how close they get to the water. All the hike masters I talked with cautioned against getting too close to the creek. If you were to fall in, the swift moving water would make climbing out quickly nearly impossible. Additionally, exploring off of designated trails can damage the protected environment.
Distance: Less then 1 mile loop
Bear Lake can be accessible via several connecting trails or by the shuttle bus. I choose to hike up to it from Alberta Falls and the entire hike was a climb upwards. While not particularly difficult, it was uphill for roughly a mile. If you choose to take the shuttle bus, you will be dropped off at the trail head for Bear Lake. There is also a ranger station and bathroom facilities at the shuttle stop. I recommend taking advantage of these as they are the last ones on this section of the mountain.
The Bear Lake Trail is a small loop that outlines the perimeter of the lake. Depending on what time of year you visit, portions of the trail maybe covered in snow. On the day I was there, you could see well-worn paths along one side of the lake. I opted to try these paths out only to realize we were essentially walking on ice and the lake was underneath my feet. As the day heated up, you could see where ice/snow had given way and people had ended up stepping into the lake. I opted to rejoin the intended trail and didn’t have any issues. This is defiantly an area to use caution.
Distance: Roughly 1 mile round-trip
The trail to Nymph Lake is located just off the Bear Lake Trailhead. Nymph lake is one of the impressive sites along the longer Fern Lake Trail. After a little over a half mile climb you will reach the south end of Nymph Lake. This beautiful lake has several benches making it ideal stopping point. The trail continues on around the lake and progresses steadily upwards to Dream Lake.
Distance: 2.2 miles round-trip
Easy (depends on snow coverage/depth)
This spot came recommended to me by one of the park ranges. I believe his exact words were “its the most beautiful spot in the park.”
After making the trek up, I have to agree. According to the the hiking resources I checked out, this trail is rated easy. However, when I attempted it at the end of May, there was still a considerable about of snow present and there are two steep sections of the trail. If there is still snow on the ground, I recommend hiking poles. Unfortunately, the combined steepness and heavy snow caused many hikers chose to turn around prior to reaching the lake. Although the hike was a bit difficult, it was absolutely worth it in the end.
This is defiantly a stop and look around type of spot. The views are breath-taking and there are abundant rocks and fallen trees to stop and rest on. Beware however, the chipmunks are used to being fed and if you pull out a snack, they expect you to share. I left my bag open while reading and caught the furry little devils trying to get into it.
Distance: 3.4 miles round-trip
Confession: I ‘m a sucker for paths along a creek or that include waterfalls.
In an effort to squeeze the last little bit of daylight out of my main hiking day, I took off on the Fern Lake trail looking for The Pool. This trail is accessible off Moraine Park road. If you drive to the trail head, the road is rough and its several miles past the campground. It’s nothing some patience can’t overcome. The shuttle bus stops roughly a mile from the trail head. If you have a car, I recommend driving to this trailhead.
In an area full of lakes, I thought The Pool was going to be another lake. Imagine my surprise when I arrived at my destination and found the roaring, turbulent water where Fern Creek meets the Big Thompson River. Now don’t get me wrong, it was beautiful and well worth the hike. The path to The Pool has impressive views on both sides of the trail and is an area known for mountain sheep.
I wish I could have explored this area more but I was losing daylight quickly. I defiantly recommend spending some time here.
Chasm Falls (Hidden Gem)
Distance: 2-5 miles depending on where you start from
Difficulty: Depends on your route
I undertook this hike accompanied by a guide and in a group from the YMCA of the Rockies which is where I stayed while in Estes Park. Honestly, had it not been for our hike master, I would have missed this hidden gem.
This spot is located off of Old Fall River Road. The road is only open for roughly 2 months a year but there are several other ways to access this spot. We parked in the parking lot & picnic area at the junction of Endovalley Road and Old Fall River Road. Towards the back of the lot there is a walking path up to Old Fall River Road. Hikers are allowed to walk the road at different times of the year, even when its closed to auto traffic. Our hike master kept us within site of the creek so we ventured off the main trail in spots.
The views were amazing and I am thankful to have made this trip under a hike masters guidance. I was told that due to some accidents, the Park Service constructed the viewing area you can see in the above photo. While this platform is concert, the trails to the area are a dirt/rock mixutre. Additionally there are some quite large steps to reach the platform which may be difficult for some visitors.
The Park That Inspired Me:
Rocky Mountain National Park is the park that inspired me to adventure more often and to just my instincts. I completed most of these hikes solo during what is considered the “off-season”. Despite this, I felt completely safe and truly happy. I weight each situation carefully and took my time exploring.
Traveling solo offers one the opportunity to rest and reflect rather than just rushing from Point A to Point B. At some point during my time in Rocky Mountain National Park I set a goal to see all 59 of the US National Parks in my lifetime. Ideally, I would like to see 30 of them in the next 11 years (at which time I will turn 40). Stay tuned for these adventures.
Your Turn: Have you been to Rocky Mountain National Park? What has been your favorite National Park? Where should I go next?