The Best Trails in Rocky Mountain National Park

Love the mountains? Love wildlife, big and small? How about rushing snowmelt, streams, and waterfalls? Expansive vistas? Then Rocky Mountain National Park should definitely be on your summer to-do list! No matter your hiking skill level we’ve got the details on the best trails in Rocky Mountain National Park so that you can plan to enjoy all that the park has to offer.

The sunsets over the snowcapped mountains of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Why Rocky Mountain National Park?

This park can be intimidating. For most of the year, you can’t even drive across it because the road passing through it (Trail Ridge Road) shuts down for deep snow. People attempting to summit its peaks have fallen to their deaths. Despite these things this park really does have something for everyone, especially during the summer months. Whether you want to be out for a few hours or for several days, we have suggestions for the best trails in Rocky Mountain National Park.

The Best Trails in Rocky Mountain – Beginner Level

Bear Lake

Bear Lake with reflective views of the surrounding peaks.
Summertime at Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.
  • Total Distance: 0.7-mile around the lake
  • Type: Loop
  • Elevation Gain: 40′
  • Trailhead: Bear Lake

Hiking in Rocky Mountian National Park doesn’t get any easier than the trail to Bear Lake. It is a short hike from the Bear Lake parking area to a gorgeous alpine lake. In fact, if you park in the Bear Lake parking lot (get here early in the summer) then you will probably spend more time walking across the lot than hiking to Bear Lake. In the winter the lake is frozen solid and covered by snow (great for snowshoeing!). It is a stunning place to visit regardless of the season.

Alberta Falls

Alberta Falls is one of the easiest best trails in Rocky Mountain National Park
The30′ Alberta Falls is one of the most picturesque waterfalls in Rocky Mountain National Park
  • Total Distance: 1.5-miles
  • Type: Out & back
  • Elevation Gain: 240′
  • Trailhead: Bear Lake or Glacier Gorge

No less than eight of Rocky Mountain’s alpine lakes drain into Glacier Creek, which careens over the 30′ Alberta Falls. The flow of this waterfall stays strong all year long. At least, when it isn’t frozen. I like to start at the Bear Lake trailhead which allows for a mostly downhill hike to Alberta Falls and then return via the Glacier Gorge Trailhead, grabbing the bus back to wherever my car is parked. Alberta Falls is a destination in and of itself, but hikers could choose to continue past the waterfall on the slightly more strenuous trail to Mills Lake or The Loch. Both are great alpine lakes. The hardest part of these trails is the climb up the ridge just beyond Alberta Falls.

Alluvial Fan

The Alluvial Fan waterfall of Rocky Mountain National Park.
One of the main cascades that make up the Alluvial Fan in RMNP.
  • Total Distance: 0.7-mile
  • Type: Out & back
  • Elevation Gain: 80′
  • Trailhead: Alluvial Fan

Located on the North Side of the park, the Alluvial Fan is a stunning cascade waterfall born from tragic circumstances. In 1982 the dam at Lawn Lake gave way sending a massive amount of water downstream and subsequently creating the Alluvial Fan. Sadly, it cost 3 campers their lives. This waterfall was again changed by the flooding that took place in 2013. The flooding took out most of the paved footpath and the bridge that spanned the creek. If you want to hike this in a loop from the east parking lot to the west lot, you will need to hop from stone to stone to get across the creek. I recommend parking in the east parking area. The approach from the east gives the best vantage point of the Alluvial fan.

The Best Trails in Rocky Mountain – Basic Skill Level

Bierstadt Lake

  • Total Distance: varied (2.5 – 6.5-miles)
  • Type: Out & back or Thru
  • Elevation Gain: varied (<600′)
  • Trailhead: Bear Lake, Bierstadt Lake, or Park & Ride
Bierstadt Lake with reflections of the surrounding mountain peaks.
Bierstadt Lake has some of the best reflections of the mountainous terrain for the amount of hiking effort needed to arrive on its shores.

Bierstadt may be my favorite lake in the park. I recommend it for late May to early July before the snow caps have melted off the surrounding peaks. There are 4 different ways to get to and from Bierstadt Lake so make sure you have a hikers map which you can pick up at the entrance gate or at the Bear Lake parking area ranger station.

The shortest distance to the lake is to park at the Bierstadt parking area and head up and over the relatively steep hill. It is only 2.5 miles roundtrip, but the 600′ of elevation gain is quick and can be a bit much if you aren’t acclimated to the altitude.

For a little more adventure, I would recommend parking in the “Park and Ride” lot and taking the park’s bus system to the Bear Lake area. After that, hike your way (mostly) downhill to Bierstadt Lake and head back to the “Park and Ride” lot via the trail. Totaling about 4-miles on the trail.

The Loch

A hiker stands on the shore of The Loch after hiking on one of the best trails in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Jake stands on the shore of The Loch taking in the mountainous beauty of the lake.
  • Total Distance: 6-miles
  • Type: Out & back (option for partical loop)
  • Elevation Gain: 1,062′
  • Trailhead: Glacier Gorge

The Loch is another gorgeous sub-alpine lake. Bierstadt may be my favorite but The Loch is stunning. The trail is also better albeit a little steeper in some areas and at 6-miles total a bit longer. You can visit Alberta Falls along the way and, if you are feeling spry, once you have had your fill of The Loch you can make your way up to Timberline Falls and Sky Pond or add on about 2.5-miles and return via Lake Haiyaha. You can start from Bear Lake or Glacier Gorge and the distance will be the same, unless you add on Lake Haiyaha. Then Bear Lake is the better of the two trailheads.

Ouzel Falls

Ouzel Falls is one of the best trails in Rocky Mountain National Park.
A hiker stands below the main drop at Ouzel Falls.
  • Total Distance: 5.3-miles
  • Type: Out & back (option for loop)
  • Elevation Gain: 902′
  • Trailhead: Wild Basin

While Alberta Falls and the Alluvial Fan are easier waterfalls to access via the main eastern entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park, Ouzel Falls is one of the most picturesque waterfalls found inside the park’s boundary. It is found in the southeastern section of RMNP known as the Wild Basin Area. Along the way to Ouzel Falls, visitors are rewarded with scenic views of water cascading down the North St. Vrain River and the Calypso Cascade. If you are feeling ambitious you can easily turn a day hike into a loop via the Unimproved Trail back to the Wild Basin Area or continue on to Ouzel Lake or Bluebird Lake.

Emerald Lake Trail

Dream Lake in the grip of winter
While the hike to Dream Lake and Emerald Lake is beautiful year-round, this is the one trail on our list that we think is made better by the deep freeze of a Colorado winter.
  • Total Distance: 3.2-miles
  • Type: Out & back
  • Elevation Gain: 750′
  • Trailhead: Bear Lake

For many, the trail to Emerald Lake is the quintessential Rocky Mountain Experience, and I wouldn’t disagree. This trail has more scenery for the relative effort than any other in the National Park. While the 750′ of elevation gain may be challenging to those trying to acclimate to the altitude it is spread out over the length of the trail well. There are only a few spots that are rather steep, but short-lived. Along the way, there are three gorgeous sub-alpine lakes—Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake. Emerald Lake is right at the tree-line, but I think Dream Lake steals the show, especially in winter. The wind coming down this ravine pushes away the snow revealing the ice. It is a must-do hike in winter or summer but especially in the winter (snowshoes are needed).

The Best Trails in Rocky Mountain – Advanced Skill Level

Rocky Mountain National Park has many trails that I would list under this heading. Given the very nature of the park, it has a lot of elevation gain and loss over short and long distances with some exposure to potentially hazardous cliffs. If you are smart about your skill level and approach these trails with a certain amount of caution and common sense you will find that these are truly some of the best adventures in the park.

Lake of Glass & Sky Pond

The Lake of Glass in Rocky Mountain National Park
The Lake of Glass is one of the many beautiful alpine lakes visited on the trail to Sky Pond.
  • Total Distance: 9-miles
  • Type: Out & back
  • Elevation Gain: 1,670′
  • Trailhead: Glacier Gorge

Sky Pond is a destination hike where it is hard to decide if the journey or the lake itself is the reason to go. With jagged peaks rising on three sides of it, Sky Pond is one of the prettiest in RMNP. However, Alberta Falls, The Loch, Timberline Falls, and Lake of Glass are all found along this one amazing trail. The distance and elevation along with a short rock scramble up the trail adjacent to Timberline Falls make this an advanced level trail. With patience and acclimation to the altitude, this is one of the best trails in Rocky Mountain National Park for anyone with the determination to do it.

Bear Lake to Fern Lake

Lake Helene with the unique Notchtop Mountain rising behind it is one of the prettiest lakes to be found on the thru-hike to Fern Lake.
  • Total Distance: 8.5-miles
  • Type: Thru
  • Elevation Gain: 1,210′ (descends nearly 2,500′ after top ascent)
  • Trailhead: Bear Lake or Fern Lake

Jennifer and I really enjoy loop and thru-hikes as there is a sense of completion when you have arrived at the final destination. RMNP’s free shuttle system makes thru-hiking easy in some sections of the park (summer only). The best thru-hike in RMNP is the Bear Lake to Fern Lake hike. The trail climbs steadily up to Lake Helene from Bear Lake. From there the path descends along a cliff wall to Odessa Lake and then on to Fern Lake and finally to the Fern Lake Trailhead where a bus back to Bear Lake can be caught. Spruce Lake and Cub Lake are side-trip options on this amazing hike in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Mount Ida

The views from the top of Mount Ida make it one of the best trails in Rocky Mountain National Park.
The view from the top of Mount Ida. Standing on this ledge isn’t necessary but it is amazing!
  • Total Distance: 9-miles
  • Type: Out & Back
  • Elevation Gain: 2,131′
  • Trailhead: Milner Pass

While not an easy hike, at 12,889′ Mount Ida has more mountain summit views for the amount of effort than any other hike in Rocky Mountain National Park and perhaps Colorado. On the journey up Mount Ida hikers are rewarded with views of alpine lakes, the Never Summer Mountain Range and usually an abundance of native wildlife. Much of this hike is done above tree-line so make sure you take precautions and start early to summit Mount Ida successfully and safely.

Chasm Lake

Chasm Lake is often overlooked as onr of the best trails in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Chasm Lake sits at the base of the massive Longs Peak.
  • Total Distance: 8.2-miles
  • Type: Out & Back
  • Elevation Gain: 2,765′
  • Trailhead: Longs Peak

Chasm Lake is often overlooked as one of the best trails in Rocky Mountain National Park because of its association with the climb of Longs Peak. However, for those who don’t desire to take on the extreme nature of Longs should still put Chasm Lake on their list. The trail to Chasm Lake shares a path with that of Long’s Peak for most of the journey and while it is steep none of the risk associated with summiting the 14,000′ mountain pertains to this trail. Those who venture to this lake are rewarded with some of the best reflective views of Longs Peak in the crystal clear waters of Chasm Lake.

The Best Trails – Advanced, Multi-day Backpacking Skill Level

Some places are so far from the trailhead that they need more time to enjoy the hike. The following trails could be done in one long day but are better taken on as a multi-day experience. Often those who spend a night in the woods get to these picturesque locations at the most beautiful times and also have them to themselves. Backpacking in RMNP requires a wilderness camping permit. Click here for details.

Mirror Lake

Rocky Mountain National Park's Mirror Lake.
Mirror Lake is the most remote hiking destination to be found among the best trails in Rocky Mountain National Park.
  • Total Distance: 12.5-miles
  • Type: Out & Back
  • Total Elevation Gain: 1,950′
  • Trailhead: Corral Creek (North-west corner of RMNP)

The trail to Mirror Lake is one of the most remote in Rocky Mountain National Park. It is a great entry-level trail for backpacking in the Rocky Mountains as the grade is more gentle than what is found on most other backpacking trails inside the park. This area is also one of the best places in the park to see moose. Just getting to the trailhead from the western gate is nearly a 3-hr drive making it one of the least traveled areas. Even on a weekend in mid-summer, hikers here will feel the remoteness and grandeur of this amazing park.

Bluebird Lake

A backpacker at Bluebird Lake
Jennifer stands on the shore of Bluebird Lake enjoying the early morning light on Ouzel Peak
  • Total Distance: 12.8-miles
  • Type: Out & Back
  • Elevation Gain: 2,518′
  • Trailhead: Wild Basin

A backpacking trip to Bluebird Lake has the added benefit of passing by Calypso Cascade, Ouzel Falls, and Ouzel Lake. All of which would easily make this journey well worth the effort. Don’t forget to reserve the most remote and stunning Upper Ouzel Campsite. Then add the deep blue waters of Bluebird Lake with gorgeous reflections of Ouzel Peak. It’s one of the best trails in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Lake Verna & Spirit Lake

One of the best trails in Rocky Mountain leads to Spirit Lake.
Spirit Lake is the third of five possible lakes to be discovered on this trail in Rocky Mountain National Park.
  • Total Distance: 15.8-miles (Spirit Lake and Back)
  • Type: Out & Back
  • Elevation Gain: 1,900′
  • Trailhead: East Inlet (South-west corner of RMNP)

This trail to Lake Verna & Spirit Lake is long and remote. Like Mirror Lake this area is also known for moose sightings. Along the hike to Spirit Lake, you will pass by the popular Adams Falls and then into a beautiful basin on the way to Lone Pine Lake, the first of up to five lakes achievable from this trail. Next is Lake Verna and then the trail conditions change into an unmaintained trail. This makes the other three lakes harder to reach but it is still well enough traveled that most hikers can easily find their way. I recommend making the effort for the third lake, Spirit Lake, as it is one of the best in RMNP. The fourth and fifth lakes are less worth the effort, but still, very nice lakes if you have the energy.

Snowbank & Lion Lakes

Rocky Mountain National Park's Lion Lake #2
Although this lake has a snowbank around it, it is actually Lion Lake #2.
  • Total Distance: 14.2-miles
  • Type: Out & Back
  • Elevation Gain: 3,013′
  • Trailhead: Wild Basin

Sitting at 11,313′ Snowbank Lake isn’t an easy adventure even when done as a backpacking trip because the nearest backcountry campsite is either at Thunder Lake or back on the Unimproved Trail. Both are nearly 4.5-miles from Snowbank Lake. There are two other gorgeous alpine lakes, Lion 1 and Lion 2, that are passed shortly before arriving at Snowbank Lake making this one of the best trails in Rocky Mountain National Park. All three lakes are stunning and well worth the effort of hiking to this remote spot in the Wild Basin Area of RMNP.

The Best Trails in Rocky Mountain – Extreme Skill Level

There are trails inside of Rocky Mountain National Park that lend themselves to an extreme level of hiking ability. While ropes aren’t needed for this level, mountaineering abilities are helpful. I would only recommend one hike at this skill level inside of RMNP and only to those who are well acclimated to the altitude and who have experience navigating this type of terrain.

Longs Peak

Longs Peak is the most extreme of the best trails in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Longs Peak as seen in the early morning light from the Boulder Field.
  • Total Distance: 15-miles
  • Type: Out & Back
  • Elevation Gain: 4,805′
  • Trailhead: Longs Peak

Long’s Peak is one of Colorado’s most famous 14ers and the Key Hole route is one of the best trails in Rocky Mountain National Park. It has a difficulty Level 3 and a Level 3 exposure. Don’t underestimate this trail. Many have done so to their peril. This is the hardest hiking trail in the park. A lot of people do this 15-mile trail in one really long day. Make sure you start early, like 1:00 AM, because you want to be off the summit and on your way back down by 11:00 AM to avoid potential rough summer weather. Think about making this a two-day trip and get your permit for wilderness camping in the Boulder Field.

Driving Rocky Mountain National Park

Hiking, not your thing? Don’t worry! Rocky Mountain National Park has some of the best overlooks right off the road, and if you’ve come for the wildlife you can see a lot from the comfort of your vehicle.

Trail Ridge Road

At 12,183′ this is the highest road in the National Park System. It is a must-do drive for anyone visiting the park. I have a hard time driving this road because of the gorgeous scenery that surrounds me and have a hard time not stopping the vehicle in the middle of the road to take pictures… don’t do this by the way. If you go early enough to the opening day (usually Memorial Day weekend) you can drive (or bike) to the top and then ski down.

A view of the snowcapped mountain of Rocky Mountain National Park from Trail Ridge Road.
Trail Ridge Road is the highest road in the National Park System.

Old Fall River Road (High clearance vehicle suggested)

A truck camper on Fall River Road
YOLOM on Old Fall River Road

Old Fall River Road is a one-way only dirt road that grants access to the same pass as Trail Ridge Road. It typically opens later in July and is only accessible for a few months out of the year. When it is open I like to drive up Old Fall River Road and come back down on Trail Ridge Road. This way you get the best of both. Keep an eye out for Chasm Falls. It is a beautiful waterfall just off the road on the left side. There is very little parking so if you want to get out and see the falls you will need to arrive early to ensure your spot.

Long Draw Road (High clearance vehicle suggested)

Long Draw Reservoir
Long Draw Reservoir and most of the road traveled to this beautiful spot are actually on the outside of Rocky Mountain National Park.

The drive to Long Draw Reservoir and even the Reservoir itself are located on the outside of the park but this is the way to the Mirror Lake Trailhead and has some of the best scenery and best chances to see a moose from the comfort of your vehicle. You can also find a primo boondocking (camping) spot along the access road before and after the reservoir. If you drive past the reservoir to the end of the road you will find it is a short and easy walk to the continental divide and the headwaters of the Colorado River. This is also the only place in the country where mankind altered the flow and shuttles water back across the divide via the Grand Ditch.

When to Visit Rocky Mountain National Park

Memorial Day weekend – Early June

Trail Ridge Road usually opens Memorial Day weekend and the road this time of year more closely resembles a snow tunnel than an actual road in certain areas. It is a very cool experience (pun intended). Don’t wait too long to visit as the wall-of-snow melts quickly and is usually gone in a few weeks.

Mid-July to Mid-August

Wildflowers are typically in bloom mid-July to mid-August and most of the trails are clear of snow, making this the perfect time to visit, hike, or backpack.

Late August/September

A bull elk bugles.
A bull elk sends out a bugle during the rut.

A great time to visit if you want to see giant herds of Elk… it’s their mating season. If you come during the third week in September this is usually a great time to see the Aspen trees change color as well, although there are much better places in the state to do this.

Winter (December – March)

Rocky Mountain National Park's Bear Lake in winter.
Bear Lake is frozen and covered in snow for most of the winter.

Winter is an amazing time of year to visit and hike/snowshoe RMNP. Many of the trails already mentioned aren’t accessible during the winter months, however the ones that are take on a renewed beauty and wonder. The snow-covered terrain with trees draped in white blankets, and frozen lakes, streams, and waterfalls feel as if those who venture into this world have crossed into an alternate dimension. If you have never ventured into the mountains during the winter then Rocky Mountain National Park is a great place to learn.

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