Your guide to exploring Rocky Mountain National Park’s best hikes and trails.
Spreading over a thousand square kilometers, Rocky Mountain National Park features mountainous terrain, alpine tundra, and evergreen forests. It was founded back in 1915 in northern Colorado, north of Boulder, and the state’s capital Denver.
There are numerous hiking trails across Rocky Mountain National Park, some of which are quite challenging. From the Trail Ridge Road to the circular trail around Bear Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park promises to test hikers with various fitness levels.
The Alpine Ridge Trail
Starring from the Alpine Visitor Center, the Alpine Ridge Trail is just under a kilometer long. But short length aside, you’ll gain 60 meters in elevation when hiking this trail, making this one of the steepest hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park. Add the fact that the trail is located at 3.500 meters above sea level and you’ll understand why the local guides call it “Huffers Hill.”
The reward for putting your stamina to the test? Panoramic views of colorful wildflowers, alpine tundra, and the nearby mountains: Mt. Chapin, Ypsilon Mountain, and Mt. Chiquita in the east and Never Summer Mountains in the west.
In 2010, the whole trail was paved to prevent issues with erosion and they’ve built more than 200 steps to deal with the trail’s steepness.
A moderately difficult trail, Deer Mountain is one of the most popular hiking trails in Rocky Mountain National Park. The roundtrip that starts and ends at Deer Ridge Junction is some 10 kilometers long.
The trailhead’s location carries historical significance, as it was the site of the Deer Ridge Chalet that offered lodging, food, and fuel for hikers for nearly half a century.
The Deer Mountain trail, with its elevation of 2.800 meters, serves as a warm-up hike for folks heading into higher elevations of the park. Since a big portion of the trail leads through open country, keep an eye out for elk and deer that freely roam the area. Also, be careful coming down from the summit trail junction because the descent is fairly steep.
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Twin Sisters Peak
Another warm-up hike is the Twin Sisters Peak located in the general area of Longs Peak. A little over 11 kilometers long, the trail has a total elevation gain of more than 800 meters. This makes the trail strenuous but not nearly as challenging as the Keyhole on Long’s Peak trail.
The view from the summit is mesmerizing, allowing you to catch a glimpse of Long’s Peak, Taylor Peak, Mt. Meeker, Powell Peak, Estes Cone, and Lily in the west on a sunny day. Down below, the trail takes you through the Roosevelt National Forest established back in 1902.
Although you have to walk a manageable 8 kilometers one way, you are going to have to ascend a full kilometer to conquer Hallett Peak. This trail is one of the steepest in the area, with only the Keyhole on Long’s Peak being more challenging.
The trail starts at the popular Bear Lake, so you’ll have to deal with weekenders during the early stages of the ascent. In order to enjoy the gold and yellow shades of aspen groves along the way, you need to be fully fit. You will need to achieve high fitness goals if you wish to reach the summit of Flattop Mountain.
The reason why it’s so hard to trek in the mountains around Bear Lake is the barren and rocky terrain. The open tundra is hard to conquer and things get even harder once you reach the Glacier Basin area, i.e. the Tyndall Glacier and its gorge.
The Keyhole on Long’s Peak
The hardest trail in Rocky Mountain National Park is by far the Keyhole on Long’s Peak trail. Standing tall at 4.346 meters, Long’s Peak is the highest point in the entire national park. Just 300 meters shorter than the highest point is the famous Keyhole, a notch in the landscaper coupled with a dome-shaped shelter made from stone.
Once you walk 10 kilometers (20 in total for the roundtrip) to the Keyhole, you will have ascended by 1.2 kilometers. The trailhead is at Long’s Peak Ranger Station if you travel by car you should be prepared to search far and wide for a parking spot, especially during the weekends. Also, campers are not allowed inside the parking lot.
The ideal time to start the arduous ascend is the break of dawn, as you’ll have to navigate rough paths, throngs of tourists, and treacherous weather conditions. Be prepared to search long and hard for a parking spot during high season — no wonder some dedicated hikers congregate near the ranger station as early as 3 AM.
Lily Lake Loop
Part of the Lily Lake trailhead, the loop around Lily Lake doesn’t require a high level of stamina. Mere 1.2 kilometers long, you will gain only 3 meters in elevation when you reach Lily Lake Visitor Center, where you started your roundtrip.
The Lily Lake Loop is really intended for families and beginner hikers. While enjoying scenic lake views and the nearby wetlands the whole family gets a good exercise without knowing it. The trail is adjacent to Estes Park so children can play afterward. Adults, on the other hand, can hit the Storm Pass Trail if they’re up for a challenge.
Bear Lake Loop
Finally, the trail that loops Bear Lake is among the shortest in the Park, a mere 1.2 kilometers long. With an inconspicuous elevation gain, the path is one of the easiest hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park, making it suitable for all visitors, including families with children.
The trail starts at the end of Bear Lake Road 9 and follows the loop of the lake’s shoreline in a counter-clockwise direction. There are 30 marked spots along the trail that carries natural, historical, and geological significance.
The best time to hit the Bear Lake Loop is early in the morning, to get ahead of the crowds. If you’re lucky, you can take a couple of photos in which you are alone, surrounded by the lake and lodgepole pine and aspen forests in the background.
Final words on hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park
From easy walks around a pond to entering the clouds when climbing the highest peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park, this part of Colorado is a haven for hikers. Whether you come in full climbing gear or you just want a weekend getaway with the family, the Rockies have it all.
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