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13 Best Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park

  • Updated: June 20, 2019
Bear-Lake-to-Fern-Lake-Rocky-Mountains-USA

Here are the best hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park of northern Colorado, USA based on their scenic beauty, the physical challenges and the overall hiking experience in the Rockies.

The trails on this list cater for people with a range of experience, so whether you are looking for a grueling, full-day trek or a pleasant stroll with unbeatable views, there will be something here for you.

Even though these hikes are all in the same region, they each offer a unique experience and are essentially incomparable. Trek over the great continental divide in the company of other hikers, grazing elk and possibly even the occasional black bear.

Epic Trails in The Rocky Mountains

Mount Ida

Trailhead: Milner Pass | Distance: 16 km | Elevation gain: 646 m | Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous

Mount Ida is one of the more physically manageable peaks in the National Park, but one with astounding, panoramic views the whole way up. The hike is relatively uncrowded, and as such is the perfect alternative to the overwhelming Trail Ridge Road.

The ascent itself is gentle, winding through delicate wildflowers, fields of boulders and traversing several tantalizing false peaks. Towards to top, the pathway becomes increasingly rugged, but it will steer you well clear of the ridge-edge cliff.

Eventually you will reach the summit, where an epic drop-off towers over a series of clear blue alpine lakes and awesome views of the rest of the park. If you prefer an easier option, look into the easier version of Mount Ida, which ends at the top of Peak 12 150.

Hallett Peak

Hallett-Peak-Rocky-Mountains-USA

Photo by Randy Baldwin

Trailhead: Bear Lake | Distance: 16.6 km | Elevation gain: 987 m | Difficulty: Strenuous

The hike to Hallett Peak starts off with a short walk along the shores of Bear Lake, before heading through aspen groves towards Flattop Mountain.

After you have reached its summit, the gradient steepens until you reach Dream Lake Overlook where you can enjoy glorious views of Longs Peak. You’ll then take a short break and continue up to break the tree-line and enter scrubby vegetation, which progressively becomes more barren and rocky.

The Emerald Lake Overlook then offers new vistas after which you will summit Flattop Mountain and continue on to Hallett Peak.

The terrain now becomes much less stable and less well-defined but is rewarded by the panoramic views of Otis Peak, Flattop Mountain, Ptarmigan Point, Grand Lake and much more.

Longs Peak

Longs-Peak-Rocky-Mountains-USA

Photo by Gail K E

Trailhead: Longs Peak | Distance: 21.8 km | Elevation gain: 1554 m | Duration: 14 hours | Difficulty: Strenuous

Longs Peak Hike is an infamous “fourteener” – one of the iconic mountains tower over 14 000 ft. above sea level – this climb is not for the feint-hearted or an inexperienced hiker.

Longs is the tallest in the Rocky Mountain National Park and you should only attempt the climb if you are in good shape, healthy, and have mountaineering experience.

The hike takes about 14 hours to complete, but it is critical that hikers plan to be off the mountain by noon, at which time afternoon storms are known to strike. You will therefore have to start your climb in the middle of the night using only a head torch for light.

The effect of dozens of head torches bobbing up the mountain in the middle of the night is exciting even without the breathtaking views you have to look forward to.

If you leave at 2 a.m., you should arrive at the summit by 10 a.m., where you’ll be rewarded with gorgeous views of Chasm Lake, Glacier Gorge and the surrounding National Park.

Bear Lake to Fern Lake

Bear-Lake-to-Fern-Lake-Rocky-Mountains-USA

Photo by Petr Maly

Trailhead: Bear Lake | Distance: 14 km | Elevation gain: 370 m | Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous

The one-way hike from Bear Lake to Fern Lake is possible using the national park’s convenient shuttle system. Park at the Fern Lake trailhead and take the shuttle to Bear Lake to begin the trek.

This hike is recommended because of its beautiful and diverse scenery, which includes dense pine forests, aspen groves, alpine lakes and waterfalls, fields of scree and a walk through a shaded valley.

You will pass Lake Helene, above which lurk the imposing cliffs of Notchtop and Flattop mountains. To complete the perfect and iconic North American picture, you are also likely to come across elk munching in meadows of wildflowers.

Gem Lake

Gem-Lake-Rocky-Mountains-USA

Photo by im me

Trailhead: Lumpy Ridge | Distance: 7.4 km | Elevation gain: 277 m | Difficulty: Moderate

The Gem Lake trail is uphill all the way, including numerous switchbacks and stairs. To ease the climb, however, there are wonderful views of Estes Park, snowy mountains and the surrounding valley along the way.

There are also some curious rock formations to look forward to, and although Gem Lake itself is nothing spectacular it is an interesting natural phenomenon: the lake is not fed by a river or stream but simply occurs from rain and melted snow and ice.

From Gem Lake either turn back or continue on to Balanced Rock Trail for further views and to add a few extra steps to your count.

Chapin-Chiquita-Ypsilon

Trailhead: Chapin Creek | Distance: 13.3 km | Elevation: 944 m | Difficulty: Strenuous

Chapin-Chiquita-Ypsilon trifecta is both a grueling and satisfying challenge. Over the course of the trek you will gain access to panoramic views of almost the entire Rocky Mountain National Park – all the way to the Never Summer Mountains to the west and Estes Park to the east.

Each summit offers different gorgeous views over dramatic cliffs. If you are feeling strong, you may want to follow the couloirs to Fern Lake too, which has a reputation for being the most picturesque in the park.

Remember that climbing each mountain is your choice, and you can easily pick miss one or another out according to your preference – the vistas from Chiquita and Ypsilon are said to be the best.

Sky Pond

Sky-Pond-Rocky-Mountains-USA

Photo by Brent Frieden

Trailhead: Glacier gorge | Distance: 16 km | Elevation gain: 542 m | Difficulty: Moderate

The hike to Sky Pond is quieter than the other, more common options like Dream Lake and Emerald Lake. After starting off at the Glacier Gorge trailhead, you will arrive at Albert Falls, a popular destination locals from Denver.

The crowds disperse as you reach the pathway to The Loch, a large and scenic lake.

You will then trek past the Lake of Glass and eventually end up at the eponymous Sky Pond. The trail also takes you past multiple interesting landmarks but expect it to become a little tricky as you approach your destination.

Don’t worry though; the final scene is definitely worth the effort. Turn around and follow the same route back to your car.

Fern Falls Hike

Trailhead: Fern Lake trailhead | Distance: 8.6 km | Elevation gain: 196 m | Difficulty: Moderate

The Fern Falls Hike is follows the winding path of the beautiful Big Thompson river. Starting along the Windy Gulch Cascades, you will then snake your way through house-sized boulders, also known as the Arch Rocks.

After crossing the river at a point known as The Pool, you will follow the tail up several switchbacks until you reach the Fern Falls.

For the avid fisherman, we recommend that you bring a rod and enjoy a couple of hours soaking in the natural tranquility before you head home.

Lake Helene

Trailhead: Bear Lake | Distance: 10.4 km | Elevation gain: 408 m | Difficulty: Moderate

Although you will pass Lake Helene if you are doing the trek from Fern Lake to Bear Lake, we thought it was beautiful enough to include as its own destination.

The trail first passes Flattop mountain after which it splits again and becomes increasingly difficult to find and follow. But persist, because once you reach the shores of the lake you will be glad you made the effort.

The skyline is dominated by the sentinel of Notchtop mountain and the lake is immense and tranquil. During peak season, we recommend that you utilize the park’s shuttle service to avoid the busy parking lots at the trailhead.

Chasm Lake

Chasm-Lake-Rocky-Mountains-USA

Photo by John McCubbin

Trailhead: Longs Peak trailhead | Distance: 13.5 km | Elevation: 762 m | Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous

The Chasm Lake hike offers much of the breath-taking scenery of Longs Peak, without the risky and arduous final ascent. The trail shares that of the Longs Peak, with the turn-off located at the foot of the Diamond (the east face of Longs).

This means that you are likely to encounter some serious mountaineers along the first section of you walk.

The trail starts off in a lush, treed environment where you’ll cross the trickle of a stream lined with mossy rocks. Next, you’ll trek through the sub-Alpine region which consists mainly of “stunted wood” trees.

By the time you reach the Alpine part of the hike, the tallest vegetation you’ll find are wispy wildflowers. Some of the perks about this hiking option are that there is no entrance fee, and you need not wait at the long lines of the three main park entrances.

Ptarmigan Lake

Trailhead: Bear Lake trailhead | Distance: 18.9 km | Elevation: 1173 m | Difficulty: Strenuous

The hike to Ptarmigan Lake requires significant elevation gain and is therefore perfect for any fit nature-lover. Many aim to reach the destination by the splendid sunrise, which means that you’ll have to start the hike in the pitch dark.

It also means that you’ll likely nab a parking spot and get to skip using the park’s shuttle service. The final section of the hike is off-trail, so make sure that you are careful and stick to the Leave No Trace principle.

If you’re quiet, and lucky, you might catch a sighting of elk bugling and grazing and browsing in the greens of Flattop Mountain. The trail starts at the Bear Lake parking lot, leading on to Flattop Mountain where it splits off from the Fern Lake trail.

After a while, you will be able to spot the Ptarmigan Lake about 700 ft. below, at which you can carefully choose your path to arrive at your destination.

Mummy Kill or Mummy Mania

Mummy-range-Rocky-Mountains-USA

Photo by Nancy King

Trailhead: Lawn Lake trailhead | Distance: 32.2 km | Elevation gain: 1706 m | Difficulty: Very strenuous

The Mummy Kill is a very intense, full-day challenge for experienced mountaineers looking to push themselves. The aim of the Mummy Kill is to trek the entire Mummy range, consisting of 6 major peaks each of about 13 000 ft., in one, exhausting day.

The difficulty of the climbs mostly remains within the range of Class II to Class III, with a Class IV section below Hagues Peak. Because of the regular afternoon thunderstorms, it is advised that hikers start early in the morning at around 5 am – use the shuttle service to make transport arrangements a lot easier.

Start off by hiking to Mount Chapin, then Mount Chiquita followed by Ypsilon.

At this point, the traffic almost entirely stops and the trail is less well-defined – you’re going to have to do the best you can. After summiting Mummy, you will break back through the tree-line and stumble your way through the forest until you find the path back to your car.

While the final stretch can be a bit boring, look forward to rewarding yourself with a hearty burger and beer.

Black Lake

Glacier-Gorge-Rocky-Mountains-USA

Photo by Brian Haines

Trailhead: Glacier Gorge trailhead | Distance: 15.5 km | Elevation: 450 m | Difficulty: Strenuous

Black Lake is one of the most amazing lakes in the national park, and requires a strenuous uphill climb to reach it.

The hike leads you through Glacier Gorge trail system, passing glorious waterfalls, several icy lakes and possible even native wildlife such as elk, deer and marmots.

Before your hike, make sure that you look over a map so that you don’t miss any of the beautiful landmarks along the way.

Some of the key destinations that you will want to visit are the Alberta Falls, Mills Lake and Jewel Lake.

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Category: North America, USA

About the Author Mark Whitman

Mark has trekked extensively in Asia, Europe, South America and Africa. He founded Mountain IQ in 2014 with the sole aim to be the best online information portal to some of the most popular mountain destinations around the world. When not writing for Mountain IQ, Mark is out exploring the outdoors with his wife!

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