Rocky Mountains

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Rocky Mountains

Rocky Mountain National Park is found in Colorado and spans the Continental Divide, encompassing 670 square kilometres of spectacular mountain environments.

The National Park was established in 1915 and is governed by the USA’s National Park Service.

Flanked by the towns of Estes Park to the east and Grand Lake in the west, the area boasts 480 kilometres of hiking trails, peaks topping 3,600 metres and more than sixty chasm lakes.

It is therefore unsurprising that people flock to Rocky Mountain National Park to see some of the most spectacular scenery on Earth.

The Rocky Mountains are the largest mountain range in North America with ridges and peaks that wind through the western States and each hike offers travellers a new, unique perspective.  Although the weather can be rough and some of the trails are exceedingly hard, the reward is always worth it.

The park is a huge place with endless hiking options, so to help you find your way we have selected just a few of Rocky Mountain National Park’s best hikes.

  • Rocky Mountain National Park is widely known as a hiker’s paradise.
  • Hiking trails meander through protected mountains, forests and alpine tundra.
  • Pristine wilderness packed with elk, mule deer, wolves and rivers full of fish.
  • The large flat summit of Longs has unobstructed 360-degree views of the eastern plains, Indian Peaks Wilderness and the Rocky Mountain National Park.
About the route
  • Travel

It is possible to enter the park from either side – through the town of Estes Park in the east or through the town of Grand Lake in the west. Connecting the east and west sides of the park is Trail Ridge Road, which is open during summer and early autumn but closed to vehicles for the remainder of the year.

Most visitors enter the park from the Estes Park side. The nearest airport is Denver International, about two hours southeast of the park’s entrance. From here you can rent a car or take the Estes Park Shuttle that costs $45 USD per person one-way or $85 USD for a round-trip.

From late spring to early autumn there are free national park shuttle buses taking hikers to some of the most popular trail heads on the park’s east side or a Park-and-Ride parking area west of Glacier Basin Campground.

Those who are driving and would prefer to enter the park from the west can take U.S.40 north to Granby, and then follow U.S. 34 north to the village of Grand Lake.

  • Length

Trails vary between two and 20 kilometres in length, with something to suit every ability. This means that whether you’ve got one day or 10, you will be able to cover as much or as little of the park as you choose.

  • Grade and difficulty of the walk

There are plenty of easy, short walks with flat gradients that can be undertaken year-round. On the flip-side, some of the longer trails such as that to Longs peak, are less of a walk in the park (excuse the pun).

This strenuous hike, and others like it, will push hikers lungs and stamina to the test but the payoff will be unbelievable views and the ability to escape the summer crowds.

  • Experience

No experience is needed to take on any of the easy to moderate trails listed below and on the park’s website. If you are planning to ascend to Longs Peak you should do so towards the end of your trip.

A few days of being in the park on easier trails will help your body acclimate to the altitude.

  • Permits

Entrance to the Rocky Mountain National Park costs $35 USD for a seven-day vehicle or  $20 USD per person. Annual passes can be purchased for $70 USD and allow you to re-enter as many times as you like.

  • Guided or Self-Guided

Due to the fact that most of the trails within the park take just a few hours to complete, there is not really any need to take a guided tour. Even the longer treks are done in a day and on most paths you can simply follow spray painted targets.

Having said this it is worth carrying a map or phone with GPS maps as if you miss your turn off you can end up heading off on a different route and adding hours to your expedition.

There are some guided tours within the park, particularly nature trails for kids, and these can be booked on arrival.

best time to walk

The best time to visit Colorado is between March and May or September and October.

During these windows the temperatures are slightly cooler and more comfortable for trekking, with fewer crowds and better accommodation rates. It is also the best time to see the trees changing colour, giving the park a different hue.

Regardless of when you go, make sure to pack plenty of fluids (particularly for the long hikes) and check for storm clouds building on the horizon. Many trails have exposed sections and can be dangerous if a thunderstorm rolls in.

Below we have pulled together an overview of some of the most popular walks in the park, varying in length and difficulty. Many people choose to base themselves in either Estes Park or Grand Lake and tackle a handful of walks from there. You can also choose to combine some routes within the park to make for a longer or more difficult itinerary.

Lily Mountain

If you have an extreme fear of heights you may not want to do this hike but the panoramic views of Mount Meeker, Longs Peak, the mountains along the Continental Divide and the Mummy Range are well worth it.

Not many other moderate trails offer these 360-degree summit views.

  • Trail Location: Lily Mountain Trailhead
  • Trail Difficulty Rating: Moderate
  • Roundtrip Length: 6.5km
  • Total Elevation Gain: 1180ft
  • Highest Point: 1180ft


Bierstadt Lake (via Bear Lake Trailhead)

This trail offers amazing scenic lake views, with Bierstadt Lake surrounded by a thick pine forest and ringed by sedges to give it a serene appearance.

From this vantage point you also get stunning panoramic views of the mountains along the Continental Divide.

  • Trail Location: Bear Lake Trailhead
  • Trail Difficulty Rating: Moderate
  • Roundtrip Length: 7.1km
  • Total Elevation Gain: 9760ft
  • Highest Point: 9172ft


Andrews Tarn

A handful of short switchbacks on this route through a fairly impressive gorge will take you past Icy Brook cascading down the valley on your left, views of a waterfall tumbling down the gorge, Powell Peak and an alpine lake and glacier.

Note that the Andrews Glacier Trail portion of this hike could be considered more of a mountaineering route than a conventional hike.

  • Trail Location: Glacier Gorge
  • Trail Difficulty Rating: Strenuous
  • Roundtrip Length: 15km
  • Total Elevation Gain: 2300ft
  • Highest Point: 11,380ft


Lumpy Ridge Loop

The section of this trail that passes through the MacGregor Ranch is absolutely stunning, with great views of the surrounding mountains and wildflowers aplenty.

During autumn the trail offers plenty of golden-yellow aspens as well as spectacular views of Estes Park, Mt. Meeker and Longs Peak.

  • Trail Location: Lumpy Ridge Trailhead
  • Trail Difficulty Rating: Strenuous
  • Roundtrip Length: 18km
  • Total Elevation Gain: 2475ft
  • Highest Point: 9172ft


 Lake Verna

Halfway into this tiring trail hikers will reach a rock outcropping that stands high above the northwestern shore of Lake Verna, with unmatched views of the narrow lake and the rugged mountains rising above the opposite shore.

This subalpine lake is the largest lake in the East Inlet valley.

  • Trail Location: East Inlet Trailhead
  • Trail Difficulty Rating: Strenuous
  • Roundtrip Length: 22.2km
  • Total Elevation Gain: 1975ft
  • Highest Point: 10,255ft


Baker Pass

Most of this route travels through the Never Summer Wilderness of the Arapaho National Forest as it winds up towards outstanding panoramic views.

The trail begins by crossing the Colorado River, moving up through the Kawuneeche Valley, which is prime habitat for elk and moose.

From the 10 kilometre point onward you’ll enjoy spectacular views of alpine meadows and the surrounding mountains.

  • Trail Location: Bowen/Baker Trailhead
  • Trail Difficulty Rating: Strenuous
  • Roundtrip Length: 19.5km
  • Total Elevation Gain: 2400ft
  • Highest Point: 11,253ft


The Keyhole on Longs Peak

This is one of the toughest trails in the park. Day hikers planning to summit Longs Peak usually arrive around 4.30am to set off just as the sun starts rising.

The trail involves scrambling, use of hand-holds, rock hopping over boulders and a great deal of route finding, so should not be underestimated.

It crosses enormous vertical rock faces with narrow ledges and is exposed to falling rock. Climbers can encounter snow and ice at any time of the year and you should be prepared changing weather conditions.

As the Rocky Mountain National Park website warns, a slip, trip or fall could be fatal along this route.

Don’t let this put you off though, as long as you are an experienced trekker/climber.

This trail offers outstanding views of Powell Peak, McHenry Peak, Glacier Gorge and Black Lake and a sense of achievement over and above any of the other trails.

  • Trail Location: Longs Peak Ranger Station
  • Trail Difficulty Rating: Strenuous
  • Roundtrip Length: 20km
  • Total Elevation Gain: 3825 Feet
  • Highest Point: 13,200 Feet


If you’re looking for something short, all of the following are under five kilometres in length and have been classed as ‘easy’ trails:

  • Lily Lake Loop
  • Bear Lake Loop
  • Sprague Lake Loop
  • Copeland Falls
  • Alpine Ridge Trail
  • Coyote Valley Trail
  • Adams Falls
  • Holzwarth Historic Site
  • Tundra Communities Trail
  • Alberta Falls
  • Dream Lake

There are various options available depending on your budget and which side of the park you want to base yourself on.

Some people choose to split their time between Estes Park and Grand Lake on either side of the park. This allows you to explore various trails and see the Rocky Mountains from a new perspective. Both areas have a range of hostels, cabins and hotels on offer.

Estes Park is very busy but there is a lot to do and see and it is very picturesque. The YMCA is a good budget option, offering both private cabins and dorm rooms, whereas the Woodlands on Fall River or Valhalla Resort are slightly more upmarket.

Grand Lake is equally beautiful but quieter. The hotels are rustic, rather than new-looking complexes, in keeping with the local environment. There are not as many restaurants on this side of the park, so bear that in mind if you are planning to stay a while.

Published: October 30, 2019 Modified: November 13, 2019

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At a glance
Difficulty 2/5 - 4/5
Starts at Rocky Mountains
Finishes at Rocky Mountains
Length of route 2 - 20Km
Average time to complete 1 - 1 Days
Possible to complete sub-sectionsYes
Highest point 4346 metres
Permit requiredYes
Countries visited Canada
Walk Map