Best Hiking Trails Rocky Mountain National Park

dream lake rocky mountains

The Rocky Mountain National Park is a stunning natural wonder that offers visitors plenty of opportunities for hiking and exploring. With over 355 miles of trails, there is something for everyone who wants to experience the beauty of the Rockies.  

Hiking at Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the best ways to explore all the things this fantastic place has to offer. Fortunately, there are hiking trails for all ages and abilities, with trails ranging from short walks around beautiful lakes to epic climbs across some of the best peaks in the Rocky’s.

Rocky Mountain National Park Ticket System 

If this is your first time to RMNP, then make sure you confirm there are tickets available. After the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, like most other National Parks, RMNP added a ticket system to limit crowds and control entry into the park. This system seems to be staying on for the foreseeable future, whether we like it or not.  

You can visit www.recreation.gov and search for Rocky Mountain National Park Timed Entry. This will give you two options, one for Bear Lake Road + Full Park Access and a second option for Park Access, excluding Bear Lake Road. We will cover the difference shortly since Bear Lake Road tickets are needed to hike some of the best lakes in the park.  

Weather Considerations 

A point we want to get across before we continue to anyone hiking at Rocky Mountain National Park or any other Colorado park for that matter is to keep an eye on the weather. If there is something unpredictable in Colorado, it is how quickly it can go from nice sunny to a full-blown hail storm in minutes.  

Gus almost got stuck exposed while hiking the Ute Trail in a hail and rain storm if he hadn’t turned back a few minutes earlier. The weather seemed to darken, and within 15 minutes, it was pouring rain and decently large hail was coming down.  

The most significant piece of advice is to hike early, and if in doubt, check in with the rangers at the visitor centers and popular trailheads. They are there to help and are always happy to advise on what is open that day and what should be skipped. 

Best Hiking Trails

Bear Lake

If there is one hike that everyone who visits Rocky Mountain National Park needs to do, it is Bear Lake Loop. The trail is 0.8 miles long and circles Bear Lake in a very walkable and well-maintained path that should be accessible to most.  

The trail is the launching point for many other hikes at RMNP which means it is a very popular spot in the park, so get there early! As mentioned earlier, RMNP does have a ticket system for entry into the park, but there is also a separate ticket system for entry into Bear Lake. If you get a Bear Lake Road ticket, you can do all hikes in the park if you get a general RMNP ticket, then you can do all roads in the parks except for Bear Lake Road.  

Easily the most popular trail at Rocky Mountain, make sure, even with the ticket system, you get there as early as possible since it does get pretty busy throughout the day. On average, you will need to park at the satellite parking lot about a mile from the trailhead, but there is a shuttle that frequently runs to drop you right at the trailhead.  

Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake 

Nymph Lake 1.2 miles round trip 
Dream Lake 2.2 miles round trip 
Emerald Lake 3.6 miles round trip 

Three of the most popular options for those looking to experience high-altitude lakes and wanting a bit more of a challenge than Bear Lake has to offer are Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes.  

Nymph Lake

Nymph Lake is the first stop once you leave Bear Lake Loop Trail, from the trailhead Bear Lake should branch off to the right, and you should see signage pointing to Bear Lake and Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake. Luckily since these trails are so popular and highly trafficked, signage and trail conditions tend to be excellent the entire way.  

The hike to Nymph Lake is relatively easy with some minor steep climbs, but if you take your time, they are manageable. The entire trip is roughly 1.2 miles round trip, so a really fast hike if you are in good hiking shape.  

Dream Lake

Once you take in the sights at Nymph Lake and if you have the energy, Dream Lake is one of the must-do hikes that offer so much yet is so accessible. Just like the hike to Nymph Lake, the trail conditions are extremely well maintained the entire way to Dream Lake and with only a 2.2-mile round trip to Bear Lake it is a must-do if you have made it this far.  

Personally, the views from Dream Lake are some of the bests in the entire park and Gus definitely thinks Dream Lake is it if you have time for only one hike on Bear Lake Road! At just over 400 feet of elevation and just over 2 miles round trip, you cannot beat this hike.  

Emerald Lake

If you are in it for a slight challenge then you can continue onto Emerald Lake to see the last lake on this hiking trail and truly be alone even in the heart of summer travel. Gus might have gotten lucky but after passing Dream Lake there was almost no one on the trail in the middle of summer in the middle of the day.  

Alpine Ridge Trail 

A must for anyone visiting Rocky Mountain National Park is to visit the Alpine Visitor Center which is the highest visitor center in the national park system. While at the visitor center, a must-do trail nicknamed “Huffers Hill” is Alpine Ridge Trail. The trail is located right next to the visitor center and shares the parking lot which also has the only restrooms and food options on Trail Ridge Road.  

The Alpine Ridge Trail is less of a regular trail and more of a hill with lots of steps. Now, this does not mean it is easy at all since it gains more than 200 feet in just three-tenths of a mile. While the distance is short, if this is your first time at altitude then this will suck the air right out of your lungs. The trail summits at right over 12,000 feet meaning for all our sea-level friends this will be a great first altitude test.  

Ute Trail Rocky Mountain National Park 

The Ute Trail at RMNP is a very interesting trail for first-time alpine hikers and one that even if just for a quarter-mile Gus recommends to all visitors to the Rocky Mountains. There are a few ways to get to the trail and a few more ways to hike it. There are two specific paths that we think are the best options for first-time hikers at alpine levels for their accessibility and difficulty levels.  

Ute Trail Alpine Visitor Center

If this is your first time at altitude and you are short on time then the Ute Trail access from the Alpine Center is the best way to spend your time after hiking the Alpine Ridge Trail mentioned earlier. The trail is rather long but just hiking half a mile or so out will give you some amazing views above the treeline and will make you feel almost completely alone in the mountains.  

The trail starts right across the street from the Alpine Visitor Center parking lot and isn’t truly marked but hard to miss when you cross the parking lot.  

Ute Trail to Tombstone Ridge

Now if the Ute Trail at the Alpine Visitor Center sparked your interest, then driving down Trail Ridge Road to this trailhead is going to be worth it. Getting to this trail is a bit awkward since there is no real marking on the road or signage on where to turn off. The trailhead is just a small pull-off that can hold 6-8 cars so depending on the time of day it might be full. There is a sign at the trail but it is definitely hard to see if you are not looking directly for it.

The trail is 5.6 miles round trip and offers some of the most spectacular hiking at an altitude that you can get without getting into strenuous hiking ratings. The trail goes out 2.3 miles to a roadblock where the RMNP rangers have closed the trail due to fire restoration.  

If you are looking for some breathtaking views then this trail is hard to beat and with a decently marked trail, it’s a must if you want an adventure.

Bonus Hike 

Sky Pond Hiking Trail

Sky Pond was definitely on the list of must-do hikes but due to the permit system, Gus did not have enough time to do all the trails he wanted on Bear Lake Road. This is why we recommend first going on the park lottery system to make sure you can get entry into the park on the days you want. While Gus had entry into the park for multiple days only one of those days involved Bear Lake Road and the lake trails looked more interesting.  

What Next 

Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the best National Parks in the U.S. and one that we cannot recommend enough. While Colorado is not short on amazing mountain trails there is something about RMNP that offers so much in such close proximity to each other. The park along with its town of Estes Park is one of Gus’s favorite places in Colorado.  

If you are planning a road trip to Colorado make sure to read our Summer Road Trip Guide on what we think is the best way to see everything Colorado has to offer.  

Have you been to Rocky Mountain National Park or Estes Park? What was your favorite part? 

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14 Responses

  1. I think I kinda like the ticket system, it controls the crowds. What a dream to be on Dream Lake and have it all to yourself. It’s such a beautiful lake too.

    1. We also are big fans of the tickets just hate it when we cant get one haha.

      Dream Lake must be one of my favorite places in the entire park though.

  2. Lots of useful info on the various hiking trails mentioned. I still find it strange that National Parks have to be booked for entry and a fee paid. I guess I’ve become so used to the British ones which are free and unrestricted, but it makes sense if the American ones can get overrun with tourists.
    I did a hike today with friends- my first in a year and it was a gentle reminder of how unready I am to start them again in earnest!

    1. Time to get ready for hiking season! It is strange to pay and book spots for park but they are just so popular there is no other way to control crowds.

  3. I’d love to visit Colorado and would definitely do at least the Bear Lake hike (I’m not experienced at all) but will come back to your blog as I love your detail! Are there specific opening and closing times for the hikes?

    1. The hikes are all open as long as the park is open! Cannot recommend this park enough one of our favorite!

  4. I like that the pathways are all very well laid out and there’s no scrambling involved at all. This smooth layout makes it really easy for everyone to go get hiking and enjoy the park. How many days would you suggest staying here? The routes all seem doable and not too far of a distance, I take it you can do the loops within a day and don’t have to camp on the trail?

    Carolin | Solo Travel Story

    1. Its such a great and well marked park, at a minimum 2-3 days and you can truly knock out a lot of great hikes!

  5. Absolutely beautiful places to visit. Nymph Lake looks right up my alley! Never been, but now I definitely want to go!

  6. Would love to spend some time here. Good to know about the ticketing system though. A similar thing is in place in popular destinations where I live too. So many pretty lakes and mountains here, and what unique trails

    1. It is truly one of the most breathtaking parks we have ever gone too. Cannot recommend it enough!

  7. Loved all the detail and information about these trails in Rocky Mountain NP. I especially loved the information on the ticket system as well. I found out about the ticket system the hard way when trying to visit Zion National Park but at the time they just installed that system and I kind of forgot to double check on that while researching.

    1. Have defintiely been stuck without tickets in the past to other parks but glad people are becoming more aware and checking the websites early. Pretty much all popular parks are having this now unfortunately but hopefully it makes it better with less crowds.

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