A shortlist of the best trails in one of America's favorite national parks.

9 Best Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park

If you want to try one of the best hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park but you are new to or unfamiliar with the park, this list will help you make the most of your time.

This list of hikes is ordered from easiest to hardest, so you will find something for every level of hiker.

For each hike, I have provided you with the most important details, maps, and resources to help you get started on your next adventure.

What are the best hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park?

Based on my professional experience guiding in Rocky, here are the best hikes you should try.

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I currently do NOT use affiliate links or receive compensation for products I recommend. I do this so my work stays honest and in line with my values. I only recommend gear that I personally use and believe is the best.

1. Bear Lake Trail

Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.
View from the north side of Bear Lake in summer. Longs Peak is the highest peak in the background to the left and Hallett Peak is the pointed in the background to the middle-right.

Difficulty: Easy

Roundtrip Length: 0.7 miles

Total Elevation Gain: 49 feet

Best time of year to hike: Year round

The Bear Lake trailhead is the starting point of many of the top hikes in Rocky, which makes it one of the most crowded areas of the park. 

If you don’t mind the crowds, the Bear Lake Loop is a great option if you are short on time or are looking for an easy hike. 

On this hike, you will get to enjoy some of the best views in the park without having to wear yourself out hiking the more physically demanding trails. 

The trail loops around the lake for only about 0.7 miles, but you will get to see stunning views of 14,259’ Longs Peak and the Bear Lake area.

There is very little elevation change and it is on a hard-packed trail that requires little technical ability. 

The trail also features an interpretive guide that you can purchase at the trailhead for a few bucks. The guide provides information about the cultural and natural history of 30 marked locations around the lake. 

Accessible all year round the Bear Lake Loop is one of the best trails for beginner snowshoers in the winter.

Trailhead Location and Route Details

The trailhead for this hikel is located at the end of Bear Lake Road, about 9 miles from the Highway 36 turnoff.

The nearest entrance station to the Bear Lake trailhead is the Beaver Meadows entrance.

A map and directions to the trailhead can be found here.

Parking Information

The Bear Lake parking lot is quite large, but it fills up quickly, especially in the summer.

Plan on arriving before 7:00 am in the summer if you even want a chance of snagging a parking spot at the trailhead. 

You might want to arrive even earlier if you are visiting on a weekend.

If you don’t want to take a chance finding a parking spot, you can park at the Park and Ride located near the Glacier Basin campground and take the park’s free shuttle bus that runs along the length of the Bear Lake corridor. 

Shuttles run from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm and the service operates from May 27 through October 18 (note: the dates and times may change, so always check with the NPS before your trip if you plan on using the shuttle.)

Find the most updated information about the RMNP shuttle service and its route here

Winters are less crowded but the lot can fill up more quickly on the weekends or holidays. I have never had a problem getting a parking spot during the week in the winter.

The Bear Lake shuttle does not run in the winter, so you won’t be able to access the trailhead if the parking lot is full.

There are pit toilets at the trailhead that are open year-round.

Also at the trailhead is a ranger information station, which is a great place to ask questions about trail conditions before you head out.

2. Lily Lake Loop

Lily Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.
View of Longs Peak and Mount Meeker from the east side of Lily Lake.

Difficulty: Easy

Roundtrip Length: 0.8 miles

Total Elevation Gain: 29 feet

Best time of year to hike: Year round

Lily Lake is a great place to stop if you are traveling Highway 7 (a.k.a the Peak to Peak Highway) on your way to the town of Estes Park, Colorado. 

There is a short 0.8 mile, flat loop that circles this beautiful lake and is a great option if you want to stretch your legs and have a picnic on the lake.  

On this trail you will enjoy amazing views of Longs Peak and Mount Meeker to the south, Ypsilon Mountain to the west, and Twin Sisters Peak to the east.

This is a paved, fully accessible trail with plenty of places to rest and take in the scenery.

Trailhead Location and Route Details

Lily Lake is located on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park off of Highway 7, about 6.5 miles south of the town of Estes Park.

If you are traveling Highway 7 from the town Lyons, CO to Estes Park, you will pass the lake on your left.

You do not need to pass through a RMNP entrance station in order to access Lily Lake. While it is inside of the park’s boundaries, you do not need to pay the park entrance fee to access it.

A map and directions to the trailhead can be found here.

Parking Information

The Lily Lake Trailhead is right off of the east shore of the lake. 

You can park on the west side of Highway 7 at the Lily Lake parking lot.

If this lot is full, you can park on the other side of the highway where you will see a large dirt parking lot.

There are restrooms and picnic tables near the trailhead.

3. Sprague Lake Loop

Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.
The Continental Divide as seen from Sprague Lake.

Difficulty: Easy

Roundtrip Length: 0.8 miles

Total Elevation Gain: 36 feet

Best time of year to hike: Year round

The Sprague Lake Loop is another fantastic short and accessible loop with incredible views.

The trail circles Sprague Lake for about 0.9 miles (even though the sign says 0.5 miles, it is a bit longer than that).

This flat trail requires no technical skill and consists hard-packed dirt and the trail features multiple benches for you to relax and enjoy the scenery. 

The best part of this trail is from the east side of the lake, where you will see stunning views of the Continental Divide behind the lake. 

The east side of the lake is one of the best sunrise photography spots in the park, so I encourage you to arrive early in the morning if you are a photographer.

As the sun rises, it illuminates the peaks of the divide, making for a spectacular backdrop for the lake.

This trail is accessible all year round, and is a great place for beginner snowshoers in the winter.

Trailhead Location and Route Details

Sprague Lake is located on the east side of the park off of Bear Lake Road. 

From Highway 36, take Bear Lake Road about 5.5 miles. Turn left onto Sprague Lake Road and take the road about 0.3 miles to the parking lot.

This hike starts on the Sprague Lake Trail, which you will follow for the entirety of your trip.

A map and directions to the trailhead can be found here.

Parking Information

This trailhead and parking lot are extremely popular, especially in the summer.

During the summer, you will want to take the park shuttle to the Sprague Lake trail unless you plan on arriving before 7:00 am.

4. Emerald Lake

Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Emerald Lake is one of the most stunning high alpine lakes in Colorado.

Difficulty: Easy-Moderate

Roundtrip Length: 3.6 miles

Total Elevation Gain: 600 feet

Best time of year to hike: Year round

Emerald Lake - and the hike to it - is one of the most magical parts of Colorado.

Like the harder Sky Pond hike (see below), the trail passes by several stunning lakes, including Nymph Lake and the more famous Dream Lake.

As you make your way up, you will have some of the best views of Longs Peak, the tallest mountain in the park at 14,259 feet. 

I’m not going to sugar coat it - this hike is incredibly crowded and you will be hiking with hundreds of new friends. If you hate hiking around people and are seeking solitude in nature, this hike isn’t for you unless you start before sunrise.

I recommend you start this hike early enough to reach Dream Lake for sunrise, especially if you are a landscape photographer.

This is not just to avoid the crowds, but the photo opportunities at Dream Lake at sunrise are unbelievable.

Once you pass Dream Lake, the trail gets steeper but its nothing too technical or scary. 

As you reach Emerald Lake, you will enjoy a truly special alpine lake situated in a glacial cirque, framed by the towering Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain. 

Trailhead Location and Route Details

The route to Emerald Lake starts at the Bear Lake Trailhead. 

You will want to follow Nymph Lake Trail to Emerald Lake. The first part of the trail is paved and veers off to the left at the start of the hike. 

There are many trails that start from this location, but the trails are well marked with signs. Make sure you keep an eye on your map so that you don’t end up on one of the other connecting trails in the area.

Parking Information

Parking for this hike is at the Bear Lake parking lot at the end of Bear Lake Road, about 9 miles from the Highway 36 turn-off.

You will definitely want to consider parking at the Park and Ride and taking the park shuttle if you plan on parking after 7:00 am (or even earlier on the weekend). 

The information about this shuttle is describe above

A map and directions to the parking lot and trailhead can be found here.

5. Deer Mountain

View from Deer Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park.
View from Deer Mountain looking south towards Longs Peak and the Continental Divide.

Difficulty: Moderate

Roundtrip Length: 6 miles

Total Elevation Gain: 1,400 feet

Best time of year to hike: Year round

If you are new to peak bagging and looking for an easier mountain to summit, Deer Mountain may be a great hike for you.

You will start the hike through more open terrain where you are more likely to see elk and deer hanging out in the meadows, along with a variety of beautiful wildflowers.

As you make your way to the top, you will enjoy 360-degree panoramic views of the park where you will get to see Longs Peak, Hallett Peak, Moraine Park, and the Continental Divide in the distance to the south, Estes Park to the east, and the Mummy Range to the northwest.

The summit of Deer Mountain sits at 10,007 feet, making this hike one of the lower attitude and less technical hikes on this list.

Trailhead Location and Route Details

The Deer Mountain Trailhead is located on the east side of the park at Deer Ridge Junction where Highway 36 and Highway 34 intersect. 

I recommend that you take the Fall River Road entrance to get to the trailhead if you are hiking during the summer months, as this entrance is less crowded than the Beaver Meadows entrance. Other times of the year, the Beaver Meadows entrance is best because it is slightly closer.

Follow the Deer Mountain Trail for the entirety of this hike. At about mile 0.1 you will see a turnoff to a trail that leads to the Aspenglen Campground

At about mile 3.2 you will come to a Deer Mountain Trail junction. Be sure to take a right at the junction, otherwise, the trail will lead you all the way into Estes Park.

Parking Information

There is a very small parking area at the trailhead that fills up quickly, especially on weekends.

As with virtually all hikes in Rocky, try to get there before 7:00 am in the summer.

A map and directions to the parking lot and trailhead can be found here.

6. Bluebird Lake

Ouzel Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Difficulty: Hard

Roundtrip Length: 14.3 miles

Total Elevation Gain: 2,800 feet

Best time of year to hike: Summer, Fall

If you love waterfalls, stunning alpine lakes, few tourists, and are up for a challenge, this hike is for you. 

Bluebird Lake is one of my favorite hikes because it starts in a more remote, less crowded area of the park called the Wild Basin.

The hike to Bluebird Lake will also allow you to knock several of the best sights to see in the park off of your list, including Calypso Cascades and Ouzel Falls.

These two waterfalls off of the Wild Basin Trail are worth visiting on their own, but if you continue past the falls on the more challenging and steep section of the trail, you will be rewarded with both Ouzel Lake and Bluebird Lake.

These incredibly beautiful alpine lakes are not only great photography spots, but they are also fantastic backcountry camping locations if you want to backpack to either of these lakes.

Bluebird Lake is especially stunning, as it sits in a basin surrounded by 12,716 foot Ouzel Peak to the southwest, 12,632 foot Mahana Peak to the northwest, and 13,176 foot Mount Copeland to the southeast.

Trailhead Location and Route Details

The hike to Bluebird Lake starts at the Wild Basin Trailhead, which is near the more remote Wild Basin entrance to the park. 

The Wild Basin entrance and trailhead for this hike is located about 30 minutes south of Estes Park.

To get there, take Highway 7 south from Estes Park about 12.5 miles and then turn right onto Wild Basin Road. You will see the Wild Basin Trailhead at the end of the road, about 2 miles from the Highway 7 turn-off.

Wild Basin Road is a narrow gravel road that is reduced to one lane in certain parts, but it is accessible for two-wheel drive cars.

Note: the winter Wild Basin Trailhead is different from the summer trailhead. In the winter, recommend taking a four-wheel drive vehicle to the winter trailhead. Always check road conditions with the park in advance.

Parking Information

The main parking area is located at the end of Wild Basin Road, right next to the trailhead.

There is also a ranger station next to the parking area where you will have to pay the national park entrance fee.

There is more parking along the road, but you are only allowed to park in designated areas along Wild Basin Road.

A map and directions to the parking lot and summer trailhead can be found here.

A map and directions to the parking lot and winter trailhead can be found here.

7. Chasm Lake

Chasm Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Difficulty: Hard

Roundtrip Length: 8.8 miles

Total Elevation Gain: 2,540 feet

Best time of year to hike: Summer, Fall

Chasm Lake ranks among the most dramatic and impressive alpine lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park, but it is much more difficult to reach than some of the more accessible lakes like Emerald and Dream Lake. 

If you are up for a more technically and physically challenging hike, the views you will experience along this trail can’t be beaten.

A rocky glacial cirque, Chasm Lake sits in a stunning basin at the base of 14,259 foot Longs Peak and 13,321 foot Mount Lady Washington. 

The famous east face of Longs Peak, a 2,000 foot vertical wall of granite known as “the Diamond,” stands sentinel over the lake.

When you get closer to the lake, this hike requires some mild scrambling and route finding. I would not recommend you attempt this hike if you do not have navigation and map reading skills. 

If you attempt this hike, I highly encourage you to bring hiking poles for the sections that require you to cover uneven, rocky terrain.

Trailhead Location and Route Details

The hike to Chasm Lake starts at the Longs Peak Trailhead.

The hike starts along the Longs Peak Trails, which is the main trail used by hikers planning on summiting Longs Peak.

Note: do not attempt to summit Longs Peak unless you are an experienced mountaineer. It is an incredibly dangerous and even deadly hike and should not be considered by most visitors to the park.

Most of the route to Chasm Lake follows the Longs Peak Trail. At about mile 3.3, you will hop on the Chasm Lake Trail which branches off to the left. 

The last mile of the hike follows the Chasm Lake Trail, which is the most difficult part of the hike.

Parking Information

The main parking area for this hike is at the Longs Peak Ranger Station, about 9 miles south of Estes Park on Longs Peak Road.

 A map and directions to the parking lot and trailhead can be found here.

Parking here is very limited and fills up quickly, especially on the weekends and the later summer months. 

You must get there extremely early (I’m talking around 5:00 am) during the summer if you want a chance at getting a spot.

This is the parking area for hikers trying to summit Longs Peak, many of whom start their hike at 2:00- 3:00. Don’t be surprised if it is completely full before sunrise.

8. Mount Ida

Alpine tundra in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Most of the hike up to Mount Ida is above treeline in the alpine tundra.

Difficulty: Hard

Roundtrip Length: 9.3 miles

Total Elevation Gain: 2,360 feet

Best time of year to hike: Summer, Early Fall

This hike is one of the most strenuous on this list for a variety of reasons. 

First, this hike starts at a high elevation and continues to climb for several thousand feet. 

Altitude sickness is a serious and real possibility for those attempting this hike, and it is not recommended if you are not acclimated to the altitude.

The majority of this hike is also above treeline (~11,500’) in the alpine tundra, exposing you to the harshest elements and making it very dangerous if you get caught in a storm.

Exposure to lightning, extreme winds, hail, and intense UV radiation can all conspire to make this hike treacherous. 

Also, the last mile of the hike requires scrambling over rocky terrain without a clearly defined route. Be sure that you (or someone with you) have the proper navigation equipment and skills to find your way off-trail. 

If all of that doesn’t scare you away, this trail is by far one of the best in Rocky Mountain National Park and should be at the very top of your list.

You will cross the Continental Divide and be treated to the most incredible panoramic views of the park, especially from the top of Mount Ida at 12,889 feet.

This is also a great hike if you want to see wildflowers and wildlife such as yellow-bellied marmots and pika - creatures that only live high up in the mountains.

Because of the uneven, rocky terrain at the top, I highly recommend that you bring trekking poles on this hike.

It is also extremely important that you start very early in the morning so that you are back below treeline by noon (see special notes for the summer hiking section below).

Trailhead Location and Route Details

The Poudre Lake Trailhead is located on Trail Ridge Road (U.S. Highway 34) at Milner Pass, right on the Continental Divide. 

This trailhead is on the west side of the park, about 15.5 miles north of the Grand Lake Entrance. 

You can also access the trailhead from the east side of the park by heading west on Trail Ridge Road and continuing about 4 miles past the Alpine Visitor Center.

A map and directions to the trailhead can be found here.

Note: the first part of this hike follows the Ute Trail for about 0.6 miles before it connects to the Mt. Ida trail. 

Parking Information

This trailhead is only accessible in the summer and fall when trail ridge road opens.

The parking area for this hike is at the Poudre Lake/Milner Pass parking lot.

The lot is small so be sure to arrive early. 

There is a pit toilet but no other amenities.

9. Sky Pond

Sky Pond in Rocky Mountain National Park.
The Sharkstooth is a wall of granite that towers over Sky Pond.

Difficulty: Hard

Roundtrip Length: 9.4 miles

Total Elevation Gain: 1,758 feet

Best time of year to hike: Summer, Fall, Winter (if experienced)

Another other-worldly spot in Rocky Mountain National Park is Sky Pond, which is one of the most spectacular alpine lakes that I know of.

Sky Pond is formed in a glacial cirque surrounded on three sides by sheer vertical walls of granite. 

The most dramatic of these walls is called The Sharkstooth, named for its spiked, tooth-like appearance. 

The entire hike up to Sky Pond is stunning, as you will pass several popular scenic spots including Alberta Falls, The Loch, Timberline Falls, and the Lake of Glass - all worth visiting in their own right. 

This hike becomes especially challenging after you pass The Loch, as it gets much steeper and certain parts on your way up to Sky Pond require some scrambling.

Be extremely careful after Timberline Falls - the rock can be slick, loose and very steep. Remember, hiking down is often scarier than hiking up so keep this in mind before you finish the last section of this hike.

If you are very afraid of heights I do not recommend this hike. Otherwise, it is unbelievably rewarding. 

Trailhead Location and Route Details

The route to Sky Pond starts at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead right off of Bear Lake Road.

You will start the hike on the Glacier Gorge Trail, which you will stay on until you reach Sky Pond. 

There are several trails that connect to the Glacier Gorge Trail, so be sure to follow the signs and check your navigation so that you don’t accidentally end up on another trail.

Parking Information

The parking for this hike is at the Glacier Gorge parking lot on Bear Lake Road, about 8 miles from the Highway 36 turn-off.

A map and directions to the parking lot and trailhead can be found here.

The lot is relatively small and fills up quickly. If you don’t arrive before 7:00 am, your best option is to park at the Park and Ride and take the park shuttle (see above).

The shuttle will drop you off right at the Glacier Gorge parking lot and trailhead.

The other parking option is to park at the Bear Lake parking lot and to start your hike to Sky Pond from the Bear Lake Trailhead. 

You can take a short 0.2 mile connector trail from the Bear Lake Trailhead to the Glacier Gorge Trail. 

You will intersect the Glacier Gorge Trail about 0.1 miles from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead.

Safety Tips for Hiking in the Mountains

Woman hiking in the mountains.

When hiking in the mountains, for lightning, extreme winds, hail, sun exposure, and dramatic weather and temperature changes are possible. 

Knowing how to plan and be prepared is your first line of defence again mother nature if she decides to turn against you. 

This is a brief overview of the most important things you need to know about staying safe in the mountains.

This is far from a complete list.

Take time to research and learn about all of the hazards of hiking in the mountains and the best safety practices that will greatly reduce you chance of getting injured.

  1. Start your hike early! In the summer, afternoon thunderstorms roll into the mountains daily, which can put you put you at serious risk of getting struck by lightning. This risk is heightened when you are hiking above treeline (over about 11,500 feet). Let “12 by 12” be your mantra, which means, your goal should be to be hiking below 12,000 feet in elevation by 12:00 pm.
  2. Be aware of the signs and symptoms of altitude sickness like headache, fatigue, and nausea. Altitude sickness is serious and up to 50% of people experience at least mild symptoms when they are over 8,000 feet. Exercise like hiking can cause the onset and exacerbate altitude sickness. If you start feeling symptoms of altitude sickness, make your way to a lower elevation as soon as possible. Choose an easier hike if you are not acclimated to the altitude.
  3. Carry the ten essentials. This is a list of guidelines designed to help outdoor adventurers pack the key items of gear necessary to survive an emergency and at least one night outside.
  4. Dress in the appropriate layers for the season. Failing to dress properly can lead to hypothermia, especially in the mountains where temperatures have extreme fluctuations.
  5. Tell someone you know the exact hike you plan on doing and when you plan on finishing. Leave a printout copy of a map with the route you are taking in your car so that someone will see it and know where to if you don’t return.
  6. Check the weather right before you leave. Consider not hiking if storms are predicted during the time you plan on hiking. Storms pass through quickly and sometimes unpredictably in the mountains, so be prepared to turn around and head back to the trailhead if you see storms rolling in.
  7. Check the trail conditions before you leave. You can do this by calling the park, talking to a park ranger at a visitors center, and checking online hiking forums that are frequently updated. I like to use AllTrails - just search for your trail and then look at the reviews section where people write (hopefully recent) trail updates. 

More information about how to stay safe while hiking can be found here, and a more complete list of high country hazards you should know about can be found here.

Recommended Trail Guides

Hiking trail in winter in Rocky Mountain National Park

To learn more about the hikes listed above and if you plan on doing a decent amount of hiking in Rocky, I highly encourage you to purchase trail guide.

The best trail guide for hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park is called Hiking Rocky Mountain National Park: The Essential Guide by Erik Stensland. 

This guide is the most in-depth and comprehensive that I have used.

Other great books and guides worth checking out include:

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