Photo: Ericurquhart

9 Great Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park

From epic days to gentle rambles, here are nine hikes that will do you right.

Though it’s not far from the bustle of downtown Denver, at just over an hour’s drive, Rocky Mountain National Park only expands outward. The high-altitude park’s 415 square miles span the Continental Divide and sit between 7,860 and 14,259 feet in elevation. There’s a lot to explore across its three distinct ecosystems—alpine (above treeline), subalpine, and the most ecologically diverse montane—each hosting a vast range of flora and fauna which changes in activity throughout the seasons. Yes, there can be summer crowds. Fortunately, there are more than enough fantastic hiking options to help you quickly find some solitude on the trail. These recommended favorites range from a round-trip epic to the foot of Longs Peak (level up for a summit of the park’s only “14er”), to a gentle, kid-friendly walk around Sprague Lake.

Epic Day

Mills and Black Lake (10 miles)

Lakes are always worthy hiking destinations, and lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park never disappoint—their cold, alpine water surrounded by rocky shores with stunning jagged peaks as a backdrop. This hike starts at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead, and passes by Alberta Falls (bonus waterfall!). Mills Lake is just 3 miles from your starting point. From there, it’s another 2 miles to Black Lake, and you’ll pass another waterfall (Ribbon Falls) along the way.

Sky Pond (9.5 miles)

Also starting at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead, this trail takes you past multiple lakes, and a couple waterfalls en route to your destination. Sky Pond, which is often referred to as the most beautiful lake in the park, sits at 10,900 feet and is surrounded by sheer cliffs on three sides, with the jagged Sharkstooth spires adding to the beautifully dramatic scene. 

Chasm Lake (9 miles)

Yes, another hike to another stunning lake. Starting at the Longs Peak Trailhead (9,405 feet), you’ll share the trail with hikers and alpinists heading to tackle the famed 14,259-foot summit of Longs Peak before veering left toward your destination, Chasm Lake. This hike gets you up close and personal with Longs Peak, Mount Lady Washington, and Mount Meeker, as well as Columbine Falls and Peacock Pond.

Photo: Ryan Wright/TandemStock

Medium-Sized

Gem Lake (3.4 miles)

One bonus of this hike (and there are a few) is that you don’t have to drive through the main gates of the park to access the parking lot. The Lumpy Ridge Trailhead, where this hike starts, is the closest and easiest trailhead to access from downtown Estes Park, while still delivering a great hike to a picturesque lake and views of the great Rocky Mountains. The hike climbs steeply to Gem Lake, where you’ll reverse your route.

Tombstone Ridge (4 miles)

From the Ute Trailhead on Trail Ridge Road (the nation's highest continuous paved highway), this high-mountain trail rolls along Tombstone Ridge without gaining much elevation, making it a gentle walk with big alpine views. You’ll be walking among tundra at roughly 12,000 feet of elevation, so be prepared for weather.

Bear, Nymph, Dream, Emerald, and Haiyaha Lakes (6.2 miles)

Starting at the ever-popular (read: insanely crowded) Bear Lake Trailhead, this relatively short hike provides serious bang for your buck. You’ll start by making the very short walk to Bear Lake before taking the trail toward tiny Nymph Lake and narrow Dream Lake. A trail spur will lead you to Emerald Lake, where you’ll reverse your path to take a right toward Lake Haiyaha (reached by another short spur). From there, you’ll loop back toward the trailhead, passing by Alberta Falls en route.

Kid-Friendly

Alluvial Fan (.5 miles)

For young kids who like to scramble on giant rocks while they meander along a trail, and then reach an exciting destination—a waterfall!—this is a great choice. It’s more of a walk than a hike, as it only gains about 150 feet in elevation. The trail climbs to a 56-foot bridge spanning the Roaring River and over the dramatic fan, a waterfall created by massive flooding in 1982. 

Sprague Lake (.8 miles)

This picturesque little lake gives young kids the feeling of accomplishment by circumnavigation. The trail offers a gentle walk around the lake, with views of the rugged mountains in full sight from the lake’s eastern shore. Park at the Sprague Lake trailhead lot.

Alberta Falls (1.7 miles)

This popular hike starts from the Glacier Gorge parking lot on Bear Lake Road. Be aware that the lot often fills by 6:30 a.m., and you may have to park .4 miles away at the larger Bear Lake parking lot (which also fills on busy days). But, if you’re able to score parking, you’ll enjoy the gradual ascent to this impressive waterfall.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.