Guide to Rocky Mountain National Park: 5 Great Hikes Ranked by difficulty

August 26, 2016

Guide to Rocky Mountain National Park:  5 Great Hikes Ranked by difficulty

The National Parks Service is celebrating their 100th birthday this week so I wanted to write a piece as a tribute to one of our Colorado parks. Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the best places to explore in Colorado. I have spent a good amount of time there hiking all sorts of trails. The list below includes a few of my favorites ranked by difficulty. They range from fairly easy to very strenuous so there’s something here for everybody. This is all based on my experience and the pictures are my own.

Emerald Lake

Trail: Bear Lake

Length: 3.5 Miles

Elevation Gain: 650 ft.

Rating: Easy to Moderate

Time of Year to Hike: Year Round

Emerald Lake Rocky Mountain National Park

This was the first hike I ever did in Rocky Mountain National Park. It leads to one of the most iconic views in the park at emerald lake looking up at Hallet Peak and Flat Top Mountain. It’s really a humbling site looking up from the lake. You will cross 3 lakes along the route, each one more beautiful than the last. Dip your feet in the water in the summer or snowshoe right over the top of the frozen lakes in winter.

It’s a shorter hike with minimal elevation gain, and the views are incredible. That’s what makes this hike a crowd favorite, especially in the summer. The Bear Lake parking lot fills up early in the morning and you will have to take the free shuttle up from the lower lot. If you are like me, you don’t go hiking to fight through crowds of people. For that reason I highly recommend going in the winter when the park has far less visitors. Snowshoes are usually required in winter and if you don’t have any you can rent them for $8 a day at the Warming House just outside the park.   I’ve taken many visitors on this trail in the winter and its always fantastic. Snowshoe over 3 frozen lakes and make your own trail through the snowy forests. So whether it’s your first trip to the park, or you are a well-seasoned trekker this is a hike you should be sure to hit.


Mills Lake

Trail: Glacier Gorge or Bear Lake

Length: 5.3 Miles

Elevation Gain: 780

Rating: Moderate

Time of Year to Hike: Year Round

Mills Lake Rocky Mountain National Park

Mills Lake is another hike that leaves from Bear Lake or glacier Gorge trailhead.   And even though it’s pretty accessible and the trail isn’t too far, Mills Lake doesn’t get overly crowded. Most people won’t hike more than a mile or so from the trailhead. I have thoroughly enjoyed this hike in summer and winter. But like I said before, Bear Lake and Glacier Gorge parking fills up fast in the summer so get their early or plan on taking the shuttle.

This trail starts in a dense aspen forest and you’ll see waterfalls, rivers, and stunning rock formations along the route until you reach Glacier Gorge where it really opens up. Massive peaks of 12,000 and 13,000 ft. are in every direction, and Mills Lake stretches out far in front of you. It really looks like a painting! Eat lunch and dip you’re feet in. You can peer right into the water and see rainbow trout leisurely swimming by. Or if it’s winter walk right across the frozen water!


Sky Pond

Trail: Glacier Gorge or Bear Lake

Length: 9 Miles

Elevation Gain: 1,780 FT

Rating: Strenuous

Time of Year to Hike: Summer

Sky Pond Rocky Mountain National Park

If you’re looking for a hike that has it all: dense forests, mountain lakes, waterfalls, rivers, tundra, big mountain views, then look no further than Sky Pond.

This hike offers breathtaking views the whole way. First, you get to see Alberta falls which is a small waterfall just half a mile or so into the trail in the middle of a beautiful aspen forest. It is crowded around here in the summer but past this point the crowd starts to fade away. The next stop is Loch Vale, also known as The Loch, about 2.8 miles into the hike. It’s a serene mountain lake that looks like something out of a fairytale. Great spot to sit near the water and take a break before moving on. It would be a great day if this was the final stop of the hike, but trust me, keep going to Sky Pond.   It’s worth it.   As you get close to Sky Pond you will reach a waterfall.   This is the only tricky part of the hike. You will have to scramble up the side of the waterfall on wet rocks. It’s nothing too crazy but take it slow because a slip would be bad. At the top you’ll reach Lake of Glass, another absolutely stunning spot but keep going! Just a short hike further and you’ll reach Sky Pond and you will immediately realize why you didn’t stop at any of the other beautiful spots along the way. Depending on the cloud cover and weather the pond will be green, blue, black, grey or something in-between. I think it changed colors at least 3 times while we relaxed on the banks and the clouds passed by.

The rock formations are absolutely incredible and if you look very closely you may see some climbers viewed as tiny colored dots ascending the spires off to your right. Don’t forget to strip you’re boots and dip your feet in the water for a refreshing if not hypothermic experience.


Flat Top Mountain

Trail: Bear Lake

Length: 9 Miles

Elevation Gain: 2,850 ft.

Rating: Strenuous

Time of Year to Hike: Year Round

Flat Top Mountain Rocky Mountain National Park

This is a great hike for people who want to experience hiking in the tundra above tree line but might not be ready for a 14,000 ft. peak. You get plenty of amazing views and steep climbs that will get your heart pumping. The elevation gain is very steady so it’s never steep to the point where you have to scramble or climb.

The first half of this hike is through forest, then you reach tree line and the remainder is in the tundra and affords spectacular views. Also about halfway through where you can look down on Emerald Lake. Longs Peak is in view for the majority of the hike above tree line.

As you start to reach the top the slope will flatten out (hence Flat Top Mountain) and you will have amazing 360 views. Tyndell Glacier, Hallet Peak, Glacier Basin, Longs Peak and a number of other notable spots are in view. It’s a great place to relax, snap some photos and eat some lunch before heading back down the way you came. If you still have some juice in the legs it’s just another .7 miles to the top of Hallet Peak.

Depending on the weather, this hike is accessible summer or winter. I attempted this hike twice in the winter with snowshoes but due to storms had to turn back twice so I was very happy to finally complete it with some good friends on a clear day this past July.


Longs Peak – Keyhole Route

Trail: Longs Peak

Length: 15 Miles

Elevation Gained: 5,100 FT

Rating: Very Strenuous

Time of Year to Hike: Summer

Longs Peak Homestretch Rocky Mountain National Park

Ahhh legendary Longs Peak, one of the most coveted peaks over 14,000 ft. in the United States.   The highest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park is also the most deadly of any 14’er in Colorado, with over 60 deaths in the last century. This one is no joke. I’ve been waiting to write this article until I had climbed this route myself. I just bagged the peak on Tuesday and I can say it lives up to the hype.

The distance alone will make you think twice, but add almost a mile of elevation gain and very exposed scrambling over steep terrain and you really have to be committed to even give this one a shot. It takes most people 12-15 hours to complete so you should start by 2 AM to avoid afternoon thunderstorms. The first 5 miles is a pretty steady hike through the forest and tundra until you reach the boulder field. This is where the trail ends and you have to navigate using cairns. At the top of the boulder field is the Keyhole: this is where things start to get hairy.

The rest of the climb is class 3 terrain and much of it will be spent scrambling on all 4s exposed to steep drops and wind. There is no margin for error beyond this point. Bull’s-eyes have been painted on dispersed rocks to show the best route to the peak. First are the Ledges. The ledges are a narrow section of scrambling with steep drop offs to your right. Again, stick to the route and make sure you’re footholds are steady, especially in the early morning hours when it’s often wet or icy. After navigating the ledges you reach the Trough. In my opinion, the Trough was hell. It’s a long steep climb up loose rock. Many spots requiring some tricky moves and sketchy footholds. It’s a real burner and you’ll be gasping for air every few feet. But at the top you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views as you cross back over to the front side of the mountain. Don’t be fooled however! It only gets more technical and dangerous from here. Now for the Narrows. Pretty self-explanatory, but basically it’s a narrow ridge for about half a mile with 1,000+ ft. cliffs to your right. Then finally the homestretch! This is the steepest climbing of the hike, but it’s only a few hundred feet up. Make sure you are careful hear as the rock has been eroded to a very smooth, marbled surface that can be hazardous when wet or icy. All the pain and suffering fades as you reach the summit and have a chance to relax and enjoy the view. But of course you still have to get down!

Longs Peak is an incredible hike but it’s something you have to work up to and be sure you are prepared for. Timing, water, food, clothing are all crucially important when hiking a mountain like this so don’t take it lightly.

Written by Kyle Barrett, Founder & CEO of Bighorn Apparel


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