9 Great Hiking Trails in Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado is one of my favorite places in the world. With 14,000 foot peaks, alpine lakes, waterfalls and wildlife, it’s everything a hiker or backpacker could want in a single National Park. There are hundreds of miles of trail to explore in the area with many sights to see. You could honestly spend a lifetime exploring the park. If you only have a few days, here are some great hiking trails in Rocky Mountain National Park to explore during your visit.
An Intro to Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park
If you are new to hiking in the Colorado rocky mountains, there are a few things to know. First, the altitude will make hiking harder, and it’s possible to get altitude sickness. Take time to acclimate by spending a few nights at altitude before you hike.
Second, snow is normal at higher elevations into early June most years. Bring boots and microspikes if you hope to do hiking in April, May or early June.
Finally, the summer the months usually see large thunderstorms most afternoons. Being above tree line is a major lightning risk – avoid these areas during the afternoon. Now, here are 9 great hiking trails in Rocky Mountain National Park.
1) Fern Lake Trail
Fern Lake is a beautiful lake surrounded by pine forests, with granite peaks towering beyond them. The trail to reach it is one of the oldest in the park, pre-dating it by several decades. Along the way, you’ll pass by several cascading waterfalls, a large rock arch, and perhaps see wildlife like deer, moose or elk. The hike is moderate in difficulty, but can easily be done in a single day. As parking fills up quickly in this part of the park, expect to stop at the park and ride and take a shuttle to the trailhead.
2) Chasm Lake Trail
Chasm Lake lies in a deep glacial cirque below the mighty east face of Longs Peak. A hike to this wonder will take you high above tree line as you ascend towards Longs Peak. Passing beneath Mount Lady Washington on your right, you’ll finally reach the lake around 11,760 feet. This trails includes areas with avalanche risk in winter, so it’s better for summer hikes unless you are experienced. Park at the Longs Peak trailhead to start, which is not connected by road to the rest of the National Park. This is my favorite lake hike of these great hiking trails in Rocky Mountain National Park.
3) Hallett Peak
If you want to climb a mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park, but you’re not ready for Longs Peak, Hallett Peak is a fantastic intermediate option. The trail will bring you up Flattop Mountain, pass by a glacier, and finish with the crux up Hallet Peak itself on the continental divide. The views from the summit are grand, and the long downhill descent is well deserved on your return. The trailhead area at Bear Lake fills quickly, so plan on stopping at the park and ride and taking the park shuttle the rest of the way.
4) Longs Peak Keyhole Route
Longs Peak is the most challenging adventure on this list of great hiking trails in Rocky Mountain National Park. In all reality, it’s more of a climb than a hike, with more than a mile of difficult class 3 scrambling at the end of the hike required to summit. There will be sheer cliffs, falling rocks, and significant risk along the way… but for those with the proper experience and gear, the reward at the summit is worth it. Set aside plenty of time and get started early enough to be below tree line by 1pm. The trail begins at the aptly named Longs Peak trailhead in the southern part of the National Park.
5) Thunder Pass Trail
The trail to reach Thunder Pass via the American Lakes is actually mostly outside of the National Park boundaries, as the Park begins officially at the pass itself. The trail brings you south along beautiful lakes as you climb towards the pass, with the Never Summer mountains prominent to the west. Nokhu Crags, one of the most beautiful peaks in the range, will be directly above you for much of the climb. The trailhead here begins outside the park at the Thunder Pass trailhead. There is an $8 parking fee that helps maintain the lot and trail, so be prepared.
6) Lulu City Trail
Lulu City is unique among these great hiking trails in Rocky Mountain National Park, as it takes you back in time to the site of an old mining camp from the late 19th century. In the decades preceding the establishment of the national park, the Coyote Valley included numerous mining operations based out of camps like Lulu City. Today there is not much left beyond scattered relics, there are several old cabins along the way, and you can still find ancient remains from the town if you look hard enough. This begins at the Colorado River trailhead and follows the river most of the way. Parking is typically available, but not always during peak times.
7) Emerald Lake Trail
Due to its short distance and limited elevation gain, along with the stunning views and lakes along the route, the Emerald Lake Trail is one of the most popular in Rocky Mountain National Park. Beginning at Bear Lake, you’ll pass Dream Lake as well before the trail ends along the shore of Emerald Lake. Lying at the foot of a small glacier, the lake is surrounded by crags and peaks with crisp water even in summer. As the most popular of all the great hiking trails in Rocky Mountain National Park, the parking lot often fills early. So plan on taking the park and ride, or finding an plan B if necessary.
8) Sky Pond Trail
Sky Pond is aptly named. Ringed by high peaks at 10,900 feet, you feel as though you are really touching the sky. The hike begins along the Glacier Gorge Trail before splitting off a little less than halfway there. The intersection is signed, but you still need to watch for it. From there, you’ll pass the Loch, another alpine lake, before reaching your final destination beneath the mountains. The parking at the Glacier Gorge trailhead is very limited, so you’ll need to take the shuttle unless you get there early.
9) Mount Ida Trail
Some people think that Mount Ida is the single best hike in the entire park. With plenty of parking at Milner Pass, less traffic than some of the shorter trails, and amazing views along the way and at the esummit, it has a bit of everything. Be mindful of thunderstorms; try to complete this hike and get back to tree line by 1pm at the latest during summer months. If Trail Ridge Road is closed, there may not be access to the Mount Ida trail.
Bonus Trail: Alberta Falls
Alberta Falls is a short, family-friendly hike that takes you to one of the prettiest waterfalls in the park. I wanted to make sure I shared it as a bonus option! Starting from the Glacier Gorge trailhead, you can complete the hike in an hour or less, not counting the time you spend enjoying the falls. It’s a busy area, so get there early or plan to take the shuttle from the park-and-ride. It deserves a spot on this list of great hiking trails in Rocky Mountain National Park
Great Hiking Trails in Rocky Mountain National Park
There are literally hundreds of hiking trails and options throughout Rocky Mountain National Park. This list is just a small sampling of the many great hiking trails in Rocky Mountain National Park. However it’s a good place to get started if you only have a day or two to visit the area. Be sure you check the weather forecast and get there early for the best chance at securing parking. There are many more hiking trails to explore here. I hope you enjoy these 10 great hiking trails in Rocky Mountain National Park!
About the Author: Alex Derr
Alex Derr is a mountaineer and blogger based in Denver Colorado. He is working to climb Colorado’s highest 100 peaks, and the 20 tallest peaks in California. He created The Next Summit to share advice, stories, history & reflections from the Colorado Rockies & Sierra Nevada. When not climbing, he is managing the Communications strategy at Visible Network Labs.