The 10 Best Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park | Westword


Get Outside: Ten Best Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park

From scenic views to alpine lakes and waterfalls, get lost in the beauty of RMNP.
Dream Lake, a scenic stop on the route to Emerald Lake.
Dream Lake, a scenic stop on the route to Emerald Lake. Abigail Bliss
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Every summer, thousands of locals and tourists enjoy outdoor recreation in Denver’s closest national park. Hiking is the biggest draw to Rocky Mountain National Park, as you’ll find scenic backpacking routes, day treks to waterfalls, alpine lakes and mountain summits. Before the season ends, book your timed entry and experience these ten can’t-miss hikes in RMNP:

Emerald Lake
Bear Lake Trailhead
Moderate, 3.2 miles out and back

A scenic drive down Bear Lake Road leads to one of the most popular hikes in RMNP: Emerald Lake. On this route, you’ll pass the lily pad-covered Nymph Lake and stunning Dream Lake before reaching your destination. Dramatic peaks rise above the water, and oftentimes, you’ll spot elk grazing nearby. For more scenery and to break away from the crowds, lengthen your hike by 1.6 miles to reach Lake Haiyaha.

Hallett Peak
Bear Lake Trailhead
Hard, 10.3 miles out and back

For an aerial view of Dream and Emerald lakes, take on the challenge of Hallett Peak. With a nearly 3,300-foot elevation gain, this route is one of the most difficult in the park. Starting from the Bear Lake Trailhead, you’ll climb switchbacks above treeline, first reaching the peak of Flattop Mountain. Veer left at the junction, following cairns and tree markers to the summit. At this vantage point, you’ll witness panoramic views of the National Park and Continental Divide.

Alberta Falls
Glacier Gorge Trailhead
Easy, 1.6 miles out and back

To see one of the most impressive waterfalls close to Denver, head to Alberta Falls. This trail is a favorite among families and visiting flatlanders, offering rewarding views without too much effort. However, that also means you shouldn't expect solitude. If you prefer a quieter experience, add an extra 3.8 miles to your trip — and maybe visit during winter’s slow season. The moderate continuation to Loch Lake leads to the best snowshoeing spot near Denver.

Chiefs Head Peak
Sandbeach Lake or Wild Basin trailheads
Moderate to hard, 7.9 or 9.4 miles out and back
With its summit at 13,759 feet, Chiefs Head is the third-highest peak in RMNP and overlooks the beautiful Lion Lakes basin, with its dramatic rock slabs and marshy wildflower (in season) patches. From Sandbeach Lake, the mileage is shorter at 7.9 each way, but the elevation gain is greater (5,239 feet), while Wild Basin takes you 5,029 feet up over 9.4 miles. Plan on a full day of hiking either way, the rewards for which are Continental Divide views as far as the eye can see and a peek at Glacier Gorge.

Sandbeach Lake
Sandbeach Lake Trailhead
Hard, 9 miles out and back

Many Colorado mountain beaches are popular for their kayaking, paddleboarding and boating opportunities. But what makes Sandbeach Lake special is its peaceful, remote location. It’s tucked away in the less-visited Wild Basin of Rocky Mountain National Park, known for its scenery and an abundance of wildlife. When exploring this area, consider extending your trip to Ouzel Lake, one of Colorado’s best backpacking routes.
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Gem Lake, one of many alpine lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Abigail Bliss
Gem Lake
Lumpy Ridge Trailhead
Moderate, 3.1 miles out and back

The trailhead leading to Gem Lake is found just behind the iconic Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. Unlike with most other popular hikes in the park, you’ll generally find plenty of parking along Devil’s Gulch Road. On the way to Gem Lake, you’ll ascend the southeastern section of Lumpy Ridge, where you’ll find a vista overlook and several interesting rock formations. Though the trail gains nearly 1,000 feet in elevation, this short route is a great option for the whole family.

Longs Peak
Longs Peak Trailhead
Hard, 14.8 miles out and back

Named the best 14er for a native, Longs Peak is a hike reserved for experts. The 14.8-mile trail gains a staggering 5,040 feet in elevation. The fearless and physically fit begin this hike between 1 and 3 a.m., and it often takes twelve-plus hours to get to the summit and back. But there are few experiences more memorable than standing at 14,259 feet in one of the country’s most beautiful destinations.

Chasm Lake
Longs Peak Trailhead
Hard, 8.8 miles out and back

The route to Chasm Lake offers incredible views of Longs Peak and, though difficult, it’s not nearly as extreme as the 14er hike. Starting from the same trailhead, you’ll divert left at the junction, gaining steady elevation until you reach the final push. Here, a Class 3 scramble leads to Chasm Lake, where the “Diamond” wall of Longs Peak, Mount Lady Washington and Mount Meeker set the backdrop.

Sprague Lake
Sprague Lake Trailhead
Easy, 0.8-mile loop

The gravel loop around Sprague Lake is another family-friendly hike, ideal for those with strollers and wheelchairs. Along the mellow, scenic trail are benches, picnic tables and plenty of photo opportunities. Fishers are often spotted along the shore, as are moose, elk and other wildlife. If you enjoy this hike, up the road lies Bear Lake Nature Trail, similar in length and scenery.

Fern Lake
Fern Lake Trailhead
Moderate, 7.5 miles out and back

Ranking as one of the best summer hikes in Colorado, Fern Lake follows alongside the Big Thompson River. About a half-mile in, you’ll spot Windy Gulch Cascades, followed by Fern Falls around the 2.5-mile mark. From there, Fern Lake is just a bit more than a mile away, but the trails don’t stop there. Popular continuation routes include Odessa Lake and, for backpackers, the Cub Lake Trail Loop.
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