Get out there: 10 great hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park

August 22nd, 2018

Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the crown jewel national parks. The scenery is spectacular. The crowds have grown, as they have at many national parks. “Rocky” as locals call it, is among the top 20 most popular national parks, right up there with legendary Yellowstone and Yosemite. Nearly 4.5 million people a year visit Rocky Mountain National Park.

A photo from Rocky Mountain National Park. It shows a lake in the foreground that is beginning to ice up in November and snow-dusted peaks in the distance.
Rocky Mountain National Park is full of great mountain vistas and alpine lakes. The peak on the right is known as Flattop Mountain and a trail leads to the top. Photo by Ann Schonlau – courtesy of the National Park Service.

So, if you join them, you will not be alone. But, you still can have a wonderful time in this beautiful place. What’s the key? Go for a hike!

As soon as you get a quarter mile or more away from a trailhead, the crowds will begin to thin out. Even toddlers and older folks can enjoy hikes on the beautifully maintained trails. So get out there!

Here are some great hikes to get you started:

Bear Lake: Easy. More of a stroll than a hike, Bear Lake is great for young children and people with compromised mobility. There’s a nature trail for young hikers and the young at heart. This hike is level, partially paved and it’s only half a mile around the lake. Start at the Bear Lake Trailhead. Do not consider driving to Bear Lake. You won’t find a parking place. Take the free shuttle bus. Click here for a schedule.

Nymph, Dream and Emerald Lakes: Easy. This hike to a trio of alpine lakes is one of the most popular in Rocky, so don’t count on any solitude. But, the ability to see three glacially carved lakes with spectacular views in such a short distance is worth the crowds. Bonus. You can see rare lily pads in bloom on Nymph Lake in mid-summer. Great hike for the whole family. Start at the Bear Lake Trailhead. Nymph is .5 miles up the trial. Dream is 1.1 miles up and Emerald is a 1.8-mile one-way hike. Elevation gain to Emerald Lake: 605 feet.

A view of a waterfall in Rocky Mountain National Park. Water is pouring down a stream and boulders surround it.
Alberta Falls is a great hike for the whole family. It’s just half a mile from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead and .8 of a mile from the Glacier Gorge bus stop. In the spring, the falls are the fullest, when snow melts and roars through Glacier Gorge. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Alberta Falls: Easy. A great hike in the spring, when the greatest volume of snowmelt is running through Glacier Gorge, this hike is a perfect, easy one for young children and older folks. Glacier Gorge Trailhead in the Bear Lake area. Get off the shuttle bus one stop before Bear Lake. The hike is only .8 miles one way. Elevation gain: 160 feet.

Copeland Falls, Calypso Cascades and Ouzel Falls: Moderate. Much like the Emerald Lake hike, this is a fun one because you see so much scenery over a relatively short distance. And you can check out a different area of the park known as Wild Basin. Parking can be difficult here because there’s no shuttle bus. Wild Basin Trailhead. Distance to Copeland Falls: .3 miles. Calypso Cascades is a 1.8 mile one-way hike and if you go to Ouzel Falls, it’s a 2.7-mile hike. Elevation gain to Ouzel Falls: 950 feet.

Lake Haiyaha: Moderate. This lake with the fun Native American name — meaning “big rocks” — can be part of a great loop hike. Start at Bear Lake. Hike to Dream Lake, then go left and hike 1.1 miles further to Lake Haiyaha. Enjoy relaxing on the giant boulders left here by a glacier. You can return the way you came for a total of 4.4 miles. Or, see new scenery and head back out to the Glacier Gorge Trailhead. You’ll pass Alberta Falls on the way out. Loop distance: 5.6 miles. Elevation gain from Bear Lake: 745 feet. Click here for map and information.

The Loch: Moderate. With its fancy name and beautiful scenery, The Loch is one of the most photographed lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park. As you hike up, you’ll see rugged cliffs and the remnants of a fast-disappearing year-round snowfield known as Taylor Glacier. One-way distance: 3.1 miles. Elevation gain: 990 feet.

A photo of an alpine lake in Rocky Mountain National Park called The Loch. In the foreground, you see the lake and behind it are some pine trees and mountains.
The Loch is one of Rocky Mountain National Park’s most photographed lakes. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Flattop Mountain: Difficult. Are you itching to do a 14-er, but you want some practice on a peak climb first? Then Flattop is a great choice for you. You’ll start at Bear Lake and will quickly leave the crowds behind as you climb higher and higher, eventually reaching an elevation of 12,324 feet. Start at Bear Lake. One-way to Flattop summit: 4.4 miles. Elevation gain: 2,849 feet. Click here for map and information.

Chasm Lake: Difficult. Longs Peak is the tallest in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s also an extremely difficult and dangerous for non-experts to climb. If you want to enjoy a beautiful hike in the Longs Peak area, give Chasm Lake a try. It features stunning views of the sheer face of Longs Peak, known as “the diamond.” Click here for a map and more information. One-way distance from Longs Peak Trailhead: 4.3 miles. Elevation gain: 2,456 feet.

closeup of a purple and white flower that blooms in the spring in Rocky Mountain National Park. It's called the Colorado pasque flower.
The Colorado pasque flower is one of the first to bloom in the spring. Photo by Ann Schonlau – courtesy of the National Park Service.

Lake Verna: Difficult. If you really want to escape crowds, locals call the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park the “wetter, better” side. Many of the trails on the west side begin near the old-west town, Grand Lake. For a very easy hike, try Adams Falls. For a beautiful, remote hike, continue on to Lake Verna. You’ll start at the East Inlet Trailhead. One way: 6.9 miles. Elevation gain: 1,809. Ambitious backpackers can get a permit to camp along the way. If you’re quite fit and are looking for a beautiful multi-day trip, you can hike above Lake Verna to Boulder-Grand Pass, then descend to Thunder Lake and hike out to the Wild Basin Trailhead. You would need permits, a bear container for your food and a ride back to Grand Lake.

Longs Peak: Extremely difficult. Not a walk-up. Like many of the 14-ers, Longs Peak has beckoned climbers for generations. But, you’ll need to be prepared. Those who attempt Longs Peak as a day climb need to have proper gear, plenty of food and water and need to start very early in the morning: by about 4 a.m. at the latest. It’s critical to be up and off the summit well before noon when summer thunderstorms roll in with dangerous lightning. Well above treeline, peak climbers don’t have anywhere to seek shelter from storms. One-way distance: 8 miles. Elevation gain: 4,855 feet. If you want to climb Longs Peak, study this information and consult with a climbing ranger at the Longs Peak Ranger Station.

Be prepared. To hike or climb safely in Rocky Mountain National Park, you’ll need to keep an eye on the weather and bring proper gear. Some guidelines include:

  • Start early. Thunderstorms roar through the mountains nearly every day during the summer. Do not hike above treeline during a thunderstorm. Lightning can kill you. If you’re climbing high, get up and off your high point before noon.
  • Keep a close eye on children. Fast-moving streams and steep drop-offs can be dangerous. Rocky is a fun, but wild place. Don’t let children wander away.
  • Dress in layers. Wear sunscreen and a hat. Bring plenty of warm clothes and rain gear. Carry a map and a compass and wear sturdy footwear.
  • Bring plenty of food and water. Hikers in Colorado get very thirsty. And newcomers can deal with altitude sickness. Don’t let yourself get caught without enough hydration. Carry extra food and water in case of an emergency.
  • Never approach or feed wildlife: Obey wildlife closures and stay far away from any animals.

For more information, pick up maps, hiking guides and spend some time speaking with the hiking experts at Rocky Mountain National Park’s Visitor Centers. Enjoy!

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Colorado native. She attended Colorado College, thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation, and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summer breaks from college. She is also a storyteller. She loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as a journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and was a finalist with a team of reporters for the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of a deadly wildfire in Glenwood Springs in 1994. Katie was the first reporter in the U.S. to track down and interview survivors of the tragic blaze, which left 14 firefighters dead.

She covered an array of beats over the years, including the environment, politics, education and criminal justice. She also loved covering stories in Congress and at the U.S. Supreme Court during a stint as the Rocky’s reporter in Washington, D.C.

Katie then worked as a reporter for an online health news site before joining the UCHealth team in 2017.

Katie and her husband Cyrus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, have three children. The family loves traveling together anywhere from Glacier National Park to Cuba.