On a crisp winter day, from a high point in west Denver, Long’s Peak towers over the Front Range, its white summit jutting into a deep blue sky. That mountain symbolizes Rocky Mountain National Park beckoning you to come up and take a hike. My favorite walk in the park climbs up a steep ridge to the base of Long’s Peak, then flattens out on the east shore of Chasm Lake. West of the lake, you will likely see the bright red sweater of a climber hundreds of feet up the wall that rises from the water’s edge, trying to conquer one more fourteener!
Rocky Mountain is a dayhiking park par excellence. Almost all the trails are less than ten miles, most are less than five, and with easily accessible trailheads. If you’re itching for a longer, multi-day backpacking trip, don’t fret. You can always string a few trails together for a tailor-made excursion. Start your research at our comprehensive list of trailheads and trails.
Going in winter? Many of the trails in lower elevations on the eastern side of the park remain hikeable while the park’s western side and higher elevations are slammed with snow. Check our winter hiking list below for some good ideas.
Length: 8.4 miles round trip
Elevation: 9400′ to 11800′
The trail starts at the Long Peak’s Ranger Station. It ascends moderately through conifer forest. At a third of a mile, the trail to Estes Cone branches right. You stay left and continue through the woods. At a little under two miles, the track hits timberline. At this point, you will be glad you started early. Late afternoon thunderstorms can make this open terrain treacherous. You continue onward through a slope covered with evergreens hugging the ground but no trees blocking the vista. At about 3 miles, bear left; the right fork heads for Granite Pass and the Keyhole. You have a little over a mile to go. The first stretch is along the marshy banks of the headwaters of Roaring Fork Creek. Once you pass Peacock Pool, a ridge rises sharply ahead – still no sign of the lake itself. You need to clamber up the steep rocky slope. A couple of false summits will have you questioning whether the pool really exists, but as you scramble over the top, a scene of unbelievable majesty unfolds before your eyes, dominated by the Diamond – the world class climb of Long’s Peak east face!
Length: 8.4 miles roundtrip
Elevation: 9240′ to 10620′
Black Lake is a final jewel along the mystic Glacier Gorge. The trail starts at Glacier Gorge Junction on the road to Bear Lake. It follows up Glacier Creek, through stands of Aspen and across boardwalks over marshy areas. The mountain walls frequently feel like they are closing in as you stroll up the narrow canyon. The sites are a lesson in the power of water. Alberta Falls plunges into the creek at a little over half a mile. At two miles, the trail to the Loch branches right, a fabulous destination in itself if you want a shorter round trip (5.5 miles). Bearing left, Mill’s Lake follows next, named for Enos Mills, one of the early naturalists that ventured into the area. The path then winds through a landscape of dwarf fir until steep walls block the canyon. Here lies Black Lake, with the dark wall of McHenry’s peak reflecting in its surface.
Old Ute Trail
Length: 6 mile point to point; or go out and back
Elevation: 11,250′ to 8,250′
When you are crossing the barren windswept slope of Tombstone Ridge, try to picture the highway this trail used to be. The Utes traversed similar vast stretches all along the Continental Divide as they traveled from village to village. The trail begins off Trail Ridge Road below the Forest Canyon Overlook. You are on top of the world here—one of your few chances to hike downhill for the day. The low life of Alpine tundra surrounds you and Long’s Peak stands guard to the south. You can hike as far as your legs will carry, enjoying the expansive scene. But remember, you go 6 miles to Upper Beaver Meadows or a steep climb back to Trail Ridge Road.
Flat Top Mountain
Length: 8.0 miles round trip
Elevation: 9,500′ to 12,300′
Departing around the north side of Bear Lake, the Flattop Trail offers more of the alpine tundra hiking so outstanding in Rocky Mountain National Park. You rise steadily through the various ecological zones, starting with the conifer forest around Bear Lake. After a couple of miles, the terrain will have opened up and you can peer straight down to Emerald Lake, more than a thousand fee below the trail. You will continue climbing until the mountain really flattens out. You will feel like your are on an enormous plateau at an elevation where the Gods live. There is nothing particularly distinct about Flattop itself, but you can take in the park’s beauty in almost every direction. At 4 miles, you will have reached your destination, but if your stamina still holds, you can take the left fork at the junction, to Hallet Peak, another mile and another few hundred feet up.
Storm Pass and Estes Cone
Length: 6.6 miles
Elevation: 9,400′ to 11,000′
Storm Pass is a great place to head for a warm-up hike when you are acclimating to Rocky Mountain altitudes. The trail starts at the Long Peak’s Ranger Station. Follow the Chasm Lake trail for a third mile, then branch right. At 2.5 miles, you will have climbed almost 1,000 feet, but your legs will scream more thanks to a lot of ups and downs. The trail splits here, the left branch heading miles further to Glacier Basin, the right climbing 750 feet to the Estes Cone. If you are warming up, turn around here. If you still have energy to burn, scramble up the scree to enjoy the Cone’s panorama of the Twin Sisters, Mount Meeker, and Long’s Peak.
Winter Day Hikes
Winter brings deep snows to Rocky Mountain National Park west of the Continental Divide. Lighter snowfall on the east side of the park leaves low elevation trails open for hiking. Trails below 8,700 feet (2,700 m) offer diverse opportunities to those who wish to travel without the aid of skis or snow shoes. The trails listed below are some of the more accessible hikes available to winter visitors. Before each outing, check with park rangers for local snow conditions and current avalanche hazards. The distances listed for the following hikes are one-way
(8,280 ft, 2,520 m)
Distance: 2.5 mi (4 km)
Elevation Gain: 200 ft (60 m)
Trailhead: At road closure on Moraine Park Road past Cub Lake Trailhead. Follow signs to Fern Lake Trailhead.
The Pool is a turbulent water pocket formed below the confluences of Spruce and Fern Creeks with the Big Thompson River. The winter route is along a gravel road, which soon narrows to a trail at the Fern Lake Trailhead. While hiking this relatively flat trail along the Big Thompson River, look for beaver-cut aspen, frozen waterfalls on the cliffs, and the Arch Rocks.
(8,600 ft, 2,620 m)
Distance: 2.3 mi (3.7 km)
Elevation Gain: 540 ft (165 m)
Trailhead: Cub Lake From Bear Lake Road, turn at Moraine Park; follow signs to Cub Lake Trailhead.
The Cub Lake trail begins in the willow thickets along the Big Thompson River and continues upward through stands of pine and aspen. Hiking the trail, you pass through a varied landscape of moraines, cliffs, streams and ponds. Ice or deep snow sometimes makes the last mile difficult, and may require the use of skis or snowshoes. This hike may be combined with The Pool hike for a 6 mile loop by taking a connecting trail beyond Cub Lake to The Pool. This section of trail may also contain deep snow or ice.
(8,960 ft, 2,730 m)
Distance: 2.5 mi (4 km)
Elevation Gain: 400 ft (120 m)
Trailhead: West Alluvial Fan Follow Highway 34 into Horseshoe Park. turn onto Endovalley Road at the west end of Horseshoe Park and follow Endovalley Road over the bridge to the road closure.
From the West Alluvial Fan parking lot, hike 1.5 miles (2.4 km) to the junction of Endovalley Road and Old Fall River Road. Along the way, you pass the remains of cabins used by the prison laborers who built Old Fall River Road early in the century. At the road junction, take the right fork and continue up Old Fall River Road one mile to the falls. Upon reaching Chasm Falls notice beautiful, but dangerous, ice formations. Negotiate this zone with caution.
(8,800 ft, 2,680 m)
Distance: 1.8 mi (2.9 km)
Elevation Gain: 910 ft (275 m)
Trailhead: Twin Owls Drive north from downtown Estes Park on MacGregor Avenue. Cross Hwy. 34 bypass and continue to sharp right turn and sign for MacGregor Ranch. Follow the blacktop ranch road to the parking lot.
The shallow waters of Gem Lake are cradled high among the rounded granite domes of Lumpy Ridge. Untouched by glaciation, this outcrop of 1.8 billion-year-old granite has been sculpted by wind and chemical erosion into a backbone-like ridge. Signs of these erosional forces—pillars, potholes, and balanced rocks—appear midway along the trail to Gem Lake. Other highpoints include spectacular views of the Estes Valley and Continental Divide, and a curious balanced rock called Paul Bunyan’s Boot.
(10,013 ft, 3,050 m)
Distance: 3 mi (4.8 km)
Elevation Gain: 1,075 ft (325 m)
Trailhead: Deer Ridge Junction From Park Headquarters drive 4.5 miles (7.2 km) on Highway 36 to roadside parking.
The route up Deer Mountain begins in a stand of mature ponderosa pine and winds upward past lodgepole pine, aspen, and limber pine to the summit plateau, which offers spectacular views of the Continental Divide. While the lower trail generally has little snow, you can expect packed and drifted snow on the switchbacks. Snow cover on the summit may be three to five feet deep, making snowshoes or skis necessary for safe travel.
Upper Beaver Meadows
(8,300 ft, 2530 m)
Distance: 1.5 mi (2.4 km) by trail
Elevation Gain: 140 ft (43 m)
Trailhead: Upper Beaver Meadows Road From Park Headquarters drive 2 miles (3.2 km) and look for the closed gate on the west side of the road in a hairpin curve. Park off the road surface on gravel.
Upper Beaver Meadows offers two hiking routes—the road which winds along the north side of Beaver Creek for two miles (3.2 km) and a trail that leaves the dirt road on the left, just inside the barricade. The trail crosses the stream and nuns along the south side of the meadow at the base of the moraine. The trail and road meet at the parking area at the west end of Beaver Meadows. You may choose to make a loop by using both the road and trail, or you may follow either route in both directions. Hiking along the trail, you may see elk bedded down among trees near the trail or along the stream.
Winter in Rocky Mountain National Park is an inviting yet silently dangerous time for hikers. The season brings short days with strong winds, low temperatures, and rapidly changing weather. Be prepared for these conditions by carrying extra clothing for layering, as well as water and high energy food.
Prevent frostbite by keeping your extremities and face well protected. Watch for the first warning signs of frostbite–a tingling, then numbing feeling.
Avoid hiking in deep snow which is quickly fatiguing and creates hazardous holes for skiers and snowshoers who follow. When conditions are icy, use instep crampons or ski poles for extra safety.
For emergencies in the park contact the nearest park ranger or Park Headquarters or call 911.
Emergency Phones are located at the Bear Lake parking lot, Cow Creek Trailhead, Lawn Lake Trailhead, and Longs Peak and Wild Basin Ranger Stations.