There are over 300 miles of hiking trails in Rocky Mountain National Park, and they all lie between 7,000 and 14,000 feet of elevation. So, it would be hard to exhaust the hiking potential of the park in anything but a long life. It should also be noted that due to the delicate nature of the high alpine ecosystem, cross-country travel (off-trail) is prohibited. Not that you’ll feel the need, the trails can get rugged enough!
Hikers should, here more than ever, be prepared for the unexpected. There are few ‘gimme miles’ and bad weather can roll in quickly. The park advises that hikers be prepared with emergency kit to stay in the backcountry overnight when attempting the more remote hikes. Also be cognizant of the Rockies’ famously regular afternoon thunderstorms!
Before you head out, it’s always a good idea to call the ranger station. They will have valuable information on current conditions and potential hazards. Here’s the 9 best hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park:
1. Flattop Mountain Trail
One of the most popular summit hikes in the park, the Flattop trail begins at Bear Lake and, after a moderate warm up, switchbacks up to 12,000’ before ending on the summit of Flattop mountain. The hike, an out-and-back, is not to be underestimated.
More than half of the trail is above treeline, so be prepared for intense weather, sun, wind and temperatures. It’s not to be missed, however, as it affords sweeping views of Flattop, Ptarmigan and Hallett peaks as well as their accompanying valleys.
While not for the unfit (the route tops out at 12,300’), it can be a long but achievable day for the generally fit.
Gain/Loss (round trip): +/- 2600’
Mileage (round trip): 8.4 miles
2. Emerald Lake Trail
A more approachable trail, especially for hikers newer to the park, the Emerald lake trail explores similar terrain to Flattop, but from the bottom of the valleys. It even begins at the same trailhead (Bear Lake).
The trail climbs gradually from the trailhead to Emerald Lake, in the shadow of Flattop Mountain and the remnants of the Tyndall Glacier. While it remains below treeline entirely, it can often harbor lingering snow into the summer, so get ready for a July snowball fight!
The trail, which goes one-way to Emerald Lake, can be turned into a loop around the Bear Lake Trailhead, exploring the valleys west of the trailhead. While it is mellower than other, objective-based trails in the park, do not take it too lightly!
Gain/Loss (round trip): +/- 660’
Mileage (round trip): 3.3 miles
3. Chasm Lake
Chasm Lake lies at the foot of the Diamond – one of the most famous alpine walls in the country. Most of the trail overlaps with the first few miles of the Keyhole route to the top of Long’s Peak, so you can get a sneak peak of that route for next time. Chasm Lake sits deep in a beautiful cirque, tucked in among the talus, above treeline.
The hike to get there is indisputably strenuous, with many miles and vertical feet over rough terrain to get there (and then get back!). It is also quite popular, as is the Long’s Peak Trailhead, so get there early for a parking spot.
Gain/Loss (round trip): +/- 2700’
Mileage (round trip): 8.2 miles
4. Sky Pond
Another famously gorgeous hike, the trail to Sky Pond winds south from the Bear Lake Trailhead until it snakes into the shadow of Taylor Peak and Taylor Glacier.
A cirque not unlike Long’s, Sky Pond is a little less physically difficult to reach, though there are several mellow scrambles around waterfalls on the way! Don’t forget to stop and enjoy them.
While the trail remains popular and in the neighborhood of several other trails, Sky Pond itself is several miles from a road, so it merits some respect from a planning perspective.
Gain/Loss (round trip): +/- 2000’
Mileage (round trip): 8.3 miles
5. Mount Ida
The trail to the top of Mt. Ida, while not technically challenging, is exciting and exposed, with incredible views of the park. It is an excellent taste of what the alpine has to offer! A long, exposed ridge (the Continental Divide) deposits you at almost 13,000 feet, only for you to have another 5 miles of hiking to get back to the car.
Do not underestimate how long this will take, or how much space to give the afternoon storms. Be off the high points before the thunderheads materialize, because they will come out of nowhere.
Gain/Loss (round trip): +/- 2300’
Mileage (round trip): 9.5 miles
6. Twin Sisters Peak
Starting from Lily Lake, which is between the Longs Trailhead and Bear Lake, hike steeply uphill through a series of switchbacks until you reach a bench on the western flank of the mountain, where you will be rewarded with views of Longs and the rest of the park for a short half of a mile before the grade kicks up again in a grind towards the summit.
Another beautiful but not so challenging summit, the saddle between the peaks is easy to attain, while the actual high points of either require some much more serious climbing skill. Prepare to get your butt kicked by the last set of switchbacks.
Gain/Loss (round trip): +/- 2400’
Mileage (round trip): 7.2 miles
7. Longs Peak Summit (Keyhole Route)
Longs via Keyhole is probably the most famous hike in the park. It’s also one of the hardest. The site of countless rescues and helicopter flights, Keyhole is a very intimidating hike, or an easy climb, depending on your background. It is definitely to be approached with caution, especially if you don’t have much experience climbing outdoors. A climbing gym will not prepare you for exposed and endless climbing.
Also read: Is Longs Peak Hard to Climb?
The route itself is long and tall, 16 miles and 5,600 feet of climbing stand between you and the top. And from the keyhole to the summit is 3rd class terrain, meaning athletic rock climbing moves. Most people start from the trailhead around 3AM so that they aren’t caught on top for afternoon lightning.
Gain/Loss (round trip): +/- 5500’
Mileage (round trip): 14.2 miles
Difficulty: Very Strenuous and Technical
8. Continental Divide Trail – RMNP section hike
The Continental Divide Trail runs from Glacier National Park in Montana to the Mexican border, weaves back and forth across the Continental Divide, which is the spine of the Rockies. It travels through some of the most striking and unsullied high country in America. And it runs through Rocky Mountain National Park!
Coming in from the west and wrapping in a horseshoe shape before the greater prominence of the park, the CDT traverses (mostly) mellower terrain within the park, though it does top out on Flattop along on the way. Often referred to as the Tonohutu Creek loop, a 27 mile loop can be made out of the CDT, making for a long (long!) trail run or a great multi-day backpacking trip.
Gain/Loss (round trip): +/- 4000’
Mileage (round trip): 27 miles
Related article: How Much Does It Cost to Hike the Continental Divide Trail?
9. Gem Lake
Just north of Estes Park, the trail to Gem Lake showcases the beauty of the Lumpy Ridge area and the rest of the park across the valley. While it is a hefty 7.5 miles out and back, the elevation gain isn’t all too bad (1600’) and its proximity to town makes it much more appealing as a partial day outing versus the more committing full-day endeavors of some of my other favorite hikes listed above.
If you persevere through, past Gem Lake, you’ll also see a beautiful, precariously balanced rock that might remind you more of the Southwest than the Northern Rockies. By the way, the 7 miles is to the balanced rock. Gem Lake is closer.
Gain/Loss (round trip): +/- 1500’
Mileage (round trip): 7.5 miles
RMNP Has something for everyone!
Rocky Mountain National Park houses some enormous terrain along the Continental Divide. Accessed most commonly from Estes Park, CO, the National Park itself is a gem in Colorado and home to some of the best climbing, skiing and hiking in the state.
Long’s Peak dominates the view from almost anywhere in the park, catching all the tumultuous weather that the area gets. RMNP is famous for “the Diamond”, a sheer granite face on Long’s Peak, which casts a long afternoon shadow over Chasm Lake. There is often snow in the park into July and it has been known to snow on the high peaks at any point in the summer.
Don’t be dissuaded, however, as the park is also a wonderful place for more casual adventures. The hiking, whether in the shadow of Long’s or among the teeming multitudes of other peaks in the park, varies from casual to intense, and always affords breathtaking views of some of the best terrain Colorado has to offer.
The high summer (July-August) usually offers the most stable weather and prettiest views (think wildflowers and alpine meadows). Spring and Fall can be beautiful too, just make sure to pack a rain jacket just in case.
RMNP has a lot to offer. There’s hundreds of miles more trail within the park than what I have already mentioned. With skiing, snowshoeing, climbing and horseback riding that you can also find there, the park is an astonishingly rugged and beautiful place too. So, please treat the land with respect and remember to follow the principles of Leave no Trace.
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