I lived in Colorado for 7 years and got to know Rocky Mountain National Park quite well during this time. The park affords hikers a great opportunity to experience large expanses of high altitude tundra, while also enjoying numerous alpine lakes beneath the higher peaks.
Rocky Mountain offers something for every hiker, from easy strolls to big mountain ascents. I have compiled a list of what I consider to be the 12 best hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park for those who are looking for more challenging, adventurous and scenic outings.
Some of these hikes are popular while others are more remote. All of these hikes are challenging to some degree but can be done in a day, though some are rather long and can be split up into 2-3 days if one wishes.
This guide covers most major sections of the park, but there are also areas of the park where I have not hiked. As as a result, there are sure to be other worthwhile trails that are missing from this guide, but it’s always more fun to leave some hidden gems out to discover on your own anyways!
Rocky Mountain sees a high amount of hiker traffic due to its access to Colorado’s urban regions, and while a few of these hikes offer solitude, for most of the trails you should expect to see other hikers.
Remember to be courteous to your fellow hikers and understand that most are out on the trail for the same reasons you are!
Also, do your part to mitigate the impact of human traffic and stay on designated trails and routes when possible, and always make sure to leave no trash behind. This is especially important in the fragile alpine zones where tundra vegetation has a very short growing season.
Distance: 12.1 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,657 feet
Max Elevation: 10,978 feet
Trailhead: Wild Basin
While not as famous as some of the other areas in the park, Wild Basin is a jumping-off point to numerous spectacular backcountry lakes. Bluebird Lake is the most beautiful lake I’ve visited in this section of RMNP.
The hike starts out in the woods and takes you past scenic Calypso Cascades and Ouzel Falls, both of which can be raging during early summer. Eventually, you break out of the dense trees and have outstanding views toward the Continental Divide for the last few miles.
Hike past Ouzel Lake first, before reaching Bluebird Lake at just below 11,000 feet. There are two backcountry camping areas between Ouzel and Bluebird Lakes that would be well worth checking out if you’re looking for an overnighter.
Thunder Lake and the Lake of Many Winds
Distance: 13.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,368 feet
Max Elevation: 11,637 feet
Trailhead: Wild Basin
The first part of this hike shares the same trail as the hike to Bluebird Lake, but splits off to the right just beyond Ouzel Falls. Thunder Lake is an awesome destination in of itself and a great spot to take a cold dip on a warm day. There is also a backcountry campsite located near the lake.
However, my recommendation is to keep hiking on an “unofficial” trail beyond Thunder Lake for another 1.2 miles to the Lake of Many Winds, which is located in a spectacular alpine setting in a bowl below Boulder-Grand Pass.
Note: I do not recommend climbing the loose scree to the top of Boulder-Grand Pass. Enjoy spending some time at the Lake of Many Winds instead!
Distance: 14.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 5,039 feet
Max Elevation: 14,259 feet
Trailhead: Longs Peak
Note: This route involves an exposed Class-3 scramble
I hesitated to add Longs Peak to this list since the upper portion is technically not a hike, but rather a Class 3 scramble that is exposed and is too often attempted by people who are ill-prepared. However, I decided that the standard Keyhole route on Longs Peak is too much of a classic not to include, since this is a guide for ambitious hikers after all.
Besides, Longs Peak is the highest mountain in RMNP and one of Colorado’s cherished “Fourteeners” at an elevation of 14,259 feet. If you have experience with high altitude scrambling and off-trail hiking and are not afraid of heights, then I would totally recommend this route!
The National Park Service has even marked the off-trail section with “bulls eyes” to help with route-finding and to prevent people from getting lost.
Despite its popularity, Longs Peak is a serious undertaking and has claimed the lives of unprepared hikers/climbers in the past who got off route and/or were caught in bad weather.
My recommendation is to start VERY early in the morning (I’ve typically started at 2 am in the past) in order to beat the crowds and to summit early and be back down to treeline before thunderstorms threaten.
Dream Lake – Glacier Gorge Loop
Distance: 9.0 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,178 feet
Max Elevation: 10,220 feet
Trailhead: Bear Lake
The Bear Lake area has a high density of hiking trails over a small area, and this loop includes side trips to numerous lakes. Starting at the popular Bear Lake Trailhead, first head to Dream Lake and Emerald Lake.
This section of trail is the most popular in the entire park and the views from both Dream and Emerald Lakes are some of the most iconic views in the park.
Next, head south toward Glacier Gorge and take worthwhile short side trips to visit Lake Haiyaha, The Loch, and Mills Lake. This entire section of RMNP is very scenic and also very popular, so it’s best to do this hike early in the morning or during the off-season, such as in the fall.
Actually, many of the lakes along this loop are accessible during the winter as well with limited avalanche exposure. As you might expect, this area is spectacular when covered in snow!
Flattop Mountain and Hallett Peak
Distance: 9.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,254 feet
Max Elevation: 12,713 feet
Trailhead: Bear Lake
These are the two mountains that make up the spectacular backdrop behind Dream and Emerald Lakes. This hike starts from the same trailhead at Bear Lake, but branches off to the right and first ascends Flattop Mountain. The views along this hike keep getting better as you go up, before eventually reaching treeline.
Keep an eye out for elk on the way up, who sometimes like to hang out in the alpine meadows. True to its name, the summit of 12,324-foot Flattop Mountain is, well, flat! But the views are expansive and from the top it’s an easy traverse past Tyndall Glacier (which is really more of a receding snowfield) over to the summit of Hallet Peak at 12,713 feet.
Lumpy Ridge Loop
Distance: 10.7 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,606 feet
Max Elevation: 9,139 feet
Trailhead: Lumpy Ridge
This is a fun early or late season hike in a less famous area of the park, though certain sections still attract their fair share of traffic. Start at the Lumpy Ridge Trailhead and hike counter-clockwise passing by Gem Lake before reaching the Cow Creek Trail.
The section from the Cow Creek to Dark Mountain to Black Canyon Trails is more remote and less-traveled. The final section will travel below Lumpy Ridge and the striking Twin Owls formation. This area is popular with rock climbers and also more open and scenic.
You’ll cross the McGregor Ranch Conservation Easement along this stretch, and you might come across some friendly horses hanging out in the meadows.
This is a great hike to do in the fall when temperatures are a little bit cooler and the aspen trees are changing. There are a couple of backcountry camping options available on the northern portion of this loop.
Fern Lake to Lake Helene
Distance: 10.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,823 feet
Max Elevation: 10,610 feet
Trailhead: Fern Lake
This trail starts at the edge of Moraine Park and features a gradual ascent that visits several lakes, including Fern Lake and Odessa Lake before concluding at Lake Helene. This hike features a nice mix of forests, open expanses, water, and views of the surrounding mountains.
Do this hike in the fall to enjoy the aspen trees changing during the first couple of miles. There are several backcountry campsites along this trail from Arch Rock to Odessa Lake.
Distance: 11.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,606 feet
Max Elevation: 10,987 feet
Trailhead: Lawn Lake
An awesome trail through the scenic northern section of RMNP will take you to Lawn Lake at the base of the Mummy Range. The elevation gain is steady and gradual on this trail as well, and if you’re looking for an overnighter then there is a backcountry campsite near the lake.
This hike features a highly worthwhile side-trip from Lawn Lake to “The Saddle” and then to the top of 13,502 foot Fairchild Mountain. This would make for a long day outing, but with enough time and good weather, the views on the way up to Fairchild Mountain are stunning. The side trip involves off-trail hiking, but the route-finding is straight-forward.
Mt. Chapin, Mt. Chiquita, and Mt. Ypsilon
Distance: 8.9 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,244 feet
Max Elevation: 13,514 feet
Trailhead: Chapin Pass
This is admittedly the one hike in this guide I have not completed personally, but it has been at the top of my bucket list after bailing at the start of an attempt once due to weather. This hike starts at a high elevation on the Old Fall Pass Road near the Alpine Visitor Center and takes you to the top of three summits, two of which are above 13,000 feet.
You’ll be above treeline the entire way on this hike, which will offer plenty of awesome views. Go during July and August and the wildflower show is likely to be spectacular.
Due to the above-treeline exposure, you’ll really want to make sure you have good weather and start early since you’ll be exposed to thunderstorm danger and will have to re-gain altitude over the first two peaks on the way back.
Distance: 9.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,388 feet
Max Elevation: 12,889 feet
Trailhead: Milner Pass
This is one of my favorite hikes in RMNP as it takes you on a high traverse above treeline with incredible views of the Mummy Range, Never Summer Range, and Longs Peak group. The first mile or so of the trail is “officially” maintained, but eventually this turns into an unofficial route that is not marked but is easy to follow.
The elevation gain is fairly gradual, and overall it’s not a difficult hike for anyone who is an experienced hiker. The payoff is definitely big, though. Keep your eyes out for bighorn sheep, who like to hang out on the tundra slopes here.
Looking for a bigger challenge? You can continue past Mt. Ida and also ascend Chief Cheley Peak and Cracktop. This traverse involves some occasional Class 3 scrambling, but will get you off the beaten path with continued alpine scenery. Watch the weather closely on this hike and start early, since most of it is above treeline and very exposed to thunderstorm danger.
Thunder Pass and Lulu Mountain
Distance: 17.0 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,778 feet
Max Elevation: 12,228 feet
Trailhead: Colorado River
This is one of the more remote hikes I’m mentioning here, but it is an outstanding option if you’re looking for a long day that is off the beaten path.
The first part of the hike to Lulu City (which is really just an open meadow that is the former historic site) is more popular, but then you’ll leave the crowds behind on the way to Thunder Pass.
This is a long hike at 17 miles roundtrip, and the distance keeps most people away. The high elevation scenery of the surrounding Never Summer Range is outstanding, especially when the wildflowers are popping. From Thunder Pass, leave the trail and walk up open meadows for just shy of 1,000 vertical feet to the summit of Lulu Mountain at 12,228 feet.
Looking to split this hike up into multiple days? There are a few backcountry campsites available, the best of which is Box Canyon.
Baker Gulch – Bowen Gulch Loop
Distance: 19.0 miles
Elevation Gain: 4,757 feet
Max Elevation: 12,167 feet
This hike is accessed on the west side of Trail Ridge Road not far from Grand Lake, and it does come with the caveat that most of the trek takes you outside of the national park boundary. However, the trailhead is located inside of the park off of Trail Ridge Road, so I say it counts.
This classic loop hike takes you from the Colorado River Valley up to the high Continental Divide in the Never Summer Mountains. This is a doable but daunting hike to take on as a day trip, but alternatively could be split up into 2 or 3 days with good camping options near Parika Lake and Bowen Lake.
This hike features several miles of exposed hiking above treeline, so watch the weather closely. Overall, this is a fantastic trail featuring alpine scenery, expansive fields of wildflowers mid-summer, and views that are different and refreshing compared to the “classic” RMNP scenes. Keep your eyes peeled for moose on the lower portions of this hike as well, as there is a large population in this area.