Rocky Mountain National Park is located in north-central Colorado and is one of the most popular parks in the country. It’s well known for having unique and diverse environments, accessible via 350 miles of hiking trails throughout the park. Some trails are in wooded forests, some are in meadows in the lower elevations, and some are even above the treeline in the alpine tundra. There are 6 distinct hiking regions, 5 visitor centers, and about 100 different trails of varying difficulty, elevation, and distance. For a first time visitor this can be a bit overwhelming!
Some of you may be planning to visit Rocky Mountain National Park this summer or sometime in the future. Here is a brief summary of each region and a description of the trails that I hiked while I was there. Hopefully it will help you plan your visit a little easier.
I spotted this guy while driving on Bear Lake Road, the only one I saw with antlers.
BEAR LAKE AREA: It’s located in the northeastern section of the park not far from the main entrance at Estes Park. If you want to get the most bang for your buck this is the place to do it. You can stay in the car and travel all the way down Bear Lake Road to Bear Lake Trailhead. It’s a scenic drive and at the end you’ll have several trails to choose from. Most begin in sub-alpine forest, pass by streams and wildflower,s and often end at lakes or mountain summits.
Cub Lake – Located at the Cub Lake Trailhead near Moraine Park Campground and Moraine Park Visitor Center. This is a fairly easy 2.3 mile one-way trail. With an elevation gain of only 540 ft it’s a great introductory hike. You’ll first cross a bridge over a river, then meander along on a dirt path with lots of pines and aspens on either side. There are beautiful streams and ponds along the way and cascading cliffs overhead. The trail leads you to Cub Lake and you can then either turn around and go back or continue on to Fern Lake. Be sure to keep a camera handy–I saw several elk just grazing and laying down right next to the trail.
Walking into the sunset on Cub Lake Trail
Elk sitting right next to the trail
Alberta Falls – This is a pretty easy trail accessed from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead with only a 160 ft elevation gain. You’ll hike for 0.9 miles one way alongside Glacier Creek. After crossing several bridges over the creek you’ll be at the rushing waters of Alberta Falls. At this point you are standing at about 10,000 feet and in mid-May the trail was wet from piles of melting snow.
Snow on the trail
Bierstadt Lake – This trail can be found at the Bierstadt Lake Trailhead. It’s a 1.6 mile one way hike with a 566 ft elevation gain. I would consider this one a moderate hike. You’ll start off wandering through a pine forest and then pop out at the bottom of a very tall moraine (a glacially formed accumulation of soil and rock otherwise known as a cliff). Then you’ll start winding back and forth along this trail up the cliff. Once you get above the treeline the view is to die for. The mountains behind you and to your right will seem like you can reach out and touch them. The higher you get, the better the view.
After 1.4 miles of climbing pretty much straight up you’ll be out of breath but the ascent is over. You’ll be back in a pine forest and Bierstadt Lake will be just ahead. It’s surrounded by trees but you should be able to find a spot where you can get a good view. You can then either take the trail which goes all the way around the lake and through the forest, or you can head back. I went around the lake. I have to say that this was probably my favorite trail. Getting to see the mountains from such a high elevation was a surreal and amazing experience. Highly recommended!
View of the mountains from the trail
View of Bierstadt Lake from the Trail around the Lake
FALL RIVER REGION: This area is accessed by driving on Old Fall River Road or Trail Ridge Road, the highest major road in the country. Trails here features alpine lakes, rivers, secluded mountain ranges, expansive forests, and some areas high above the treeline. Crowds are hard to come by. Crowds of people that is. There should be plenty of bighorn sheep and elk out and about.
Tundra Communities Trail – This was one of my most memorable hikes, as well as the coldest. It starts at Rock Cut on Trail Ridge Road and is the stop just before reaching the highest point on the road. It’s a 0.5 mile one way hike up a gentle incline on a paved path. Here you are in the tundra, high above the treeline. It takes the plants in this area a long time to grow so you are urged to stay on the designated path. This is such a rare environment for the United States. Winds can reach up to 100 mph and temperatures are frigid for almost half the year. All you can see from here is frozen tundra. Even though it was bitterly cold, I really enjoyed this hike. We even got a light snow shower for the full effect.
View from the end of the trail
KAWUNEECHE VALLEY: Many visitors will not get the chance to explore the park’s “Wild West” but it’s well worth the visit if you’re staying for more than just a weekend. There will be fewer people around so it’s more serene than the east side. The west side is also known for being the wetter side of the park. The famous Colorado River is the major feature on most trails here. There are also lush forests, big meadows, and overall the terrain is less rocky. Be on the lookout for moose and river otters. They often hang out along the river.
Coyote Valley Trail – Found at the Coyote Valley Trailhead, this is a half mile one-way trail and is completely wheelchair accessible. It’s a very easy, kid-friendly hike with no change in elevation. The path starts out at the Colorado River and winds through a big meadow following the river with interpretive signs and benches along the way. Elk are often seem grazing out in the meadow.
The Colorado River
Coyote Valley Trail
GRAND LAKE: This area is located in the southwestern corner of the park where there is plenty of water. Grand Lake is Colorado’s largest natural mountain lake and there are two other major reservoirs, Shadow Mountain and Granby. If you have enough time to spend in the park this is a very nice spot to visit. It’s probably the most secluded region of the park. The hiking trails here will reward you with waterfalls, forests, meadows, streams, and lots of wildflowers. Moose are everywhere, even on the side of the road.
Adams Falls – This is one of the shorter trails available here. It’s located at the East Inlet Trailhead and is only 0.3 miles one way. There are quite a few steps throughout the trail but I would consider it pretty easy overall. After a short while you will get to a lookout point just above Adams Falls. The sound of the roaring waterfall contrasts the silence of the area. If you walk a little further past the falls you will come to a big grassy area where moose and elk like to hang out. On the hike back we even saw a large, beautiful fox.
The top of Adams Falls
Fox on the trail
WILD BASIN: This region is located in the southeastern corner of the park. There are several lakes providing gorgeous scenery for hikers. Some of the trails will lead you to very high mountain peaks. You’ll see beautiful scenery, wildflowers, wildlife, roaring streams and waterfalls all throughout the area. Be on the lookout for black bear, mountain lions, bighorn sheep, elk, and mule deer.
Calypso Cascades – This trail follows a raging stream for 1.8 miles up to the Calypso Cascades waterfall. It is a fairly easy hike gaining 700 ft in elevation. After just 0.3 miles you will meet up with Copeland Falls. Watch the water for long enough and you might see the water ouzel or the American dipper bird. Along the way you’ll be shaded by lots of pine and aspen. This is a nice hike with the relaxing sound of rushing water every step of the way.
Calypso Cascades Trail
Calypso Cascades waterfall
LILY LAKE AREA: Located on the easternmost side of the park, right in the center, this area offers a wide range of hiking trails. There is one trail that leads to Colorado’s northernmost peak at over 14,000 feet. On the other end of the spectrum, there is also an easy wheelchair accessible trail around Lily Lake. It is a dry region with mostly lodgepole pine trees. Birds, owls, bobcats, and porcupines can be found throughout.
There are so many great hikes to choose from in Rocky Mountain National park–hopefully this list will give you some ideas about where to start!