I’ve been to Colorado quite a bit. It is practically my second home at this point. As such, it only makes sense that I’ve spent a decent amount of time in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP).
RMNP is just west of Estes Park, Colorado (northwest of Denver). And while the park only includes one mountain that is above 14,000 feet, the views and scenery there are some of the most impressive I’ve ever experienced in the state. There are endless possibilities for hiking in the summer and countless snowshoeing and cross-country skiing opportunities in the winter. The hiking ranges from a leisurely stroll around Bear Lake (which is always super packed with people by the way) to steep inclines that require ropes for support.
I personally enjoy challenging hikes – better views with less people. But with so many choices, it’s really hard to narrow it all down. Or know what to expect. Here are some of the places we stay and some of my favorite hikes for RMNP.
Where to Stay:
Whether you are from out of state or just two hours south, it’s important to stay near the park. I liked hiking RMNP best early in the morning. The air is crisp and fresh, the sunlight is great for pictures, there are far less people around, and it’s just a great way to start your day. But a long drive kills the mood.
We’ve stayed in multiple places around the Estes Park area, and here are the two we liked best.
1. Stonebrook Resort: We stayed in an individual cabin with a full kitchen that backs up right onto the Fall River. We also had our own hot tub. It was surprisingly affordable for what you get, and the management there is
very friendly. Stonebrook is practically right next to the north entrance of the park, so the driving is minimal for hiking, and there are trails that start at your cabin and lead you right into the park if you don’t want to drive. The property is about a 10 minute drive from the town of Estes Park. We loved our stay there and never wanted to leave. (They book up pretty quickly in the summer, so make sure you plan ahead.)
2. The Maxwell Inn: This property is more of a hotel style of accommodation. It
wasn’t anything fancy, and it was honestly a little small and stale. But it was clean and affordable, and in a fantastic location. This place is perfect for you if you plan on spending most of your time outside, rather than cooped up in a room. Get a room on the first floor near the front office. They hang hummingbird feeders there in the summer, and the little birds come out in swarms. It is so relaxing to sit on the patio outside your room after a long day of hiking and watch all the hummingbirds play.
My Favorite Hikes:
First of all, I highly recommend you look these hikes up on RockyMountainHikingTrails.com if you are interested in any of them. This website gives step by step instructions, explains history and features along the way, and has pictures too (although they do NOT do it justice). We use it a lot when we go out there!
(Note: I realize that hiking difficulty is very subjective based on fitness level, past experience, and several other factors. These hikes are geared more toward people that enjoy hiking but might not be ready to summit a 14er in their time there.)
– Flattop Mountain (strenuous hike): 8.9 miles RT; 2,850 elev gain
This was my favorite hike in RMNP. You are summiting a mountain and seeing the tops of Hallett and Long’s Peaks. Don’t be intimidated by the “summiting” thing though – the hardest part is the distance (no scrambling required). Along the way, you get an amazing bird’s-eye view of Emerald Lake, which is ridiculously pretty! The last mile to the top (mile 4) is the hardest because of the elevation gain when you are already tired from the incline all the way up, but if you can push through, it’s worth it. There are lots of marmots, pika, and elk everywhere. And you get a fantastic view of the Tyndall glacier up there (you are right next to it) and can see the entire Mummy range. It’s a little harsh at the top, so bring a wind breaker. **If you haven’t had enough when you reach the top, head on up higher to Hallett Peak. It’s just a measly 400 ft higher.**
– Chasm Lake (moderate/strenuous hike): 8.4 miles RT; 2,450 elev gain
The views here are just beautiful! It’s on the side of Long’s peak. And I watched an 8 year old kick my butt on this trail. We didn’t make it all the way because of snow pack (too dangerous at the time), but if you want an amazing view of Long’s, this is your hike. There is a sign once you hit the alpine tundra (with a fantastic waterfall) that explains a bit about it. And you get to really see the transition from the tree line to open tundra – a very cool experience! Start early for this one, as Long’s is notorious for its afternoon storms.
– Lake Helene (moderate hike): 6.5 miles RT; 1,340 elev gain
This one should be very doable for kids. It starts at Bear Lake, then you take the trail in the direction of Odessa Lake and Flattop Mountain. Once you get to the lake (about 3 miles in), the views are ridiculously amazing! It’s my favorite lake of all that I saw there. Highly recommend! Most of the snow should be gone if you go in the summer or fall, so the trail should be well defined and easy to follow. And you get great views of Notchtop Mountain from the lake! Also, most of the elevation gain is towards the beginning, so once you get through that, it’s pretty flat for the rest of your hike.
– Fern Lake (moderate hike): 7.6 miles RT; 1,400 elev gain
This was our warm up hike when we got there and needed to get acclimated. The elevation gain gets the most intense once you are almost to the lake. It’s a beautiful and peaceful place to stop and have lunch! There is lots of room to spread out and get away from the crowd. It’s also a horse trail, so you might see some horses around the lake (which is great for kids).
Another one we did not do (but will next time we go back) is the Twin Sisters hike. It’s on the more difficult side, but looked beautiful. And it’s in the Long’s Peak trail area. Mad props if you can fit this one in!
And don’t forget to look for pikas and marmots on your hikes! They are EVERYWHERE in RMNP.