Rocky Mountain National Park is a hiker’s paradise. Trails to alpine lakes, cascading waterfalls, jagged peaks, and wildflower-dotted tundra abound. This park offers something for everyone, from 0.5 jaunts around a lake or 11-mile leg burners that climb high above the tree line. What are the best hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park for families? Here are our picks.
Best Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park: Bear Lake Area Hikes
The Bear Lake Area, just outside of Estes Park, is the most popular hiking destination within Rocky Mountain National Park. During the peak season, parking at the trailheads is usually full by 7am. Luckily, there is a large overflow parking area with a free shuttle system which runs frequently and drops visitors at three different trailheads down the road. The overflow parking can even be full midday, especially on summer weekends. Arrive early (before 10am) or late (after 3) to secure a spot.
Trails in this region can get very crowded. The crowds definitely detract from the experience so I HIGHLY suggest getting up early to hike (arrive by 8). The weather will be pleasant ( hot days and afternoon thunderstorms are both common in the summer) and you will have the trails (mostly) to yourself.
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Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake
If there is one trail that packs a whallop of Rocky Mountain National Park beauty into one short punch, it is this trail. The hike begins at the Bear Lake Trailhead and is doable for families with children of all ages. It is an out-and-back trail with a steady (but not too steep) climb, however there are some lovely places to stop and enjoy along the way. After hiking 0.5 mile, you will reach Nymph Lake, a charming little lake dotted with lily pads. Families will reach Dream Lake at the 1.1 mile mark. Take some time to skip rocks and eat a snack before hiking the final 0.7 miles to Emerald Lake. Snow patches cling to rocky slopes near the lake well into the summer months. After taking some time to enjoy the lake, enjoy the easy 1.8 mile hike back down the hill.
Bear Lake Trail
Photo by: Flickr/ Andy Smith
One almost feels obligated to see Bear Lake while hiking in the Bear Lake Area of Rocky Mountain National Park. The lake is very close to the shuttle stop and has a 0.5 mile loop trail which encircles the lake. The trail is very easy and can easily added as an extension of your Emerald Lake hike. It is also a nice place to warm up before heading down to Glacier Gorge area.
Another wildly popular hike, Alberta Falls is best enjoyed early in the day before the crowds start forming. Most people access Alberta Falls via the Glacier Gorge shuttle stop which will take you on an easy but steady 0.8 mile climb up to the falls. My kids prefer beginning at the Bear Lake shuttle stop and ending at the Glacier Gorge shuttle stop. This strategy minimizes the uphill hiking. All the trails in this area are well marked, making navigation a breeze. At the Bear Lake trailhead, a trail heads 0.4 miles downhill before joining up with trail coming from Glacier Gorge and gently climbing for the last 0.5 miles to the falls. We spend lots of time scrambling on the massive boulders adjacent to the falls before heading downhill to the Glacier Gorge shuttle stop.
Photo by: Flickr/ChristianCollins
If you have older children and are looking for more of a challenge in the Bear Lake area, definitely consider the hike to Loch Vale. This is definitely one of the best hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park. It follows the same trail that passes Alberta Falls, but continues on for 2.3 miles to a gorgeous lake known as “The Loch”. There is some significant elevation climbing involved but the scenery is lovely and well worth the effort. While gazing upon The Loch, you will notice Timberline Falls cascading in the distance. Can you reach Timberline Falls? Why yes you can! The trail hugs The Loch for a bit before climbing significantly towards the falls.
Once you reach Timberline Falls you can either a) enjoy the falls and be satisfied or b) embrace your inner adventurer follow the trail which climbs up the rocks on the side of the falls and heads towards the Lake of Glass. I would only suggest this section to experienced and fit hikers. Those with a fear of heights might be too intimidated to continue. This part of the trail is quite difficult and does require using your hands and feet to scale the rocks. It becomes more rock climbing than hiking at this point. There can also be water running on the trail near the waterfall, which adds to the adventure. The payoff is a magical lake surrounded by 13,000-foot peaks.
But wait! There’s more! To the right of the lake, the trail continues. It hops across boulders and further up just 0.3 miles before you reach your final destination, Sky Pond. This small but lovely little lake is at 10,900 feet in elevation. Taylors Peak and Powells Peak loom above. Be sure to keep your eyes out for rock climbers on the Sharks Tooth formation to the right. They look like little ants on the sides of the massive granite spires. You’ve climbed 1,780 in elevation so take some time to savor the moment before heading back downhill. The total hike is length is about 10 miles. It is highly suggested that you start early to avoid crowds and afternoon thunderstorms.
Best Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park: Easy Wildlife-Spotting Hikes
Wildlife sightings can be plentiful in Rocky Mountain National Park, if you know when and where to go. Some of the best, easy hikes in the park are in locations frequented by moose, elk, and deer.
Located off Bear Lake Road, Sprague Lake is a wonderful destination for multigenerational groups who are hoping to spot some moose. The parking lot is a good size and we never had an issue finding a spot during our multiple evening visits. The 1-mile trail around the lake is mostly flat, making it ideal for strollers, wheelchairs, and the elderly. The lovely scenery makes it enjoyable for even experienced hikers. Visit this destination at sunset for your best opportunity to spot a moose. Elk, deer, and even bear can be spotted in this area. This is also a popular place for beginning fly fishing because the entire lake is quite shallow.
Another popular moose-spotting destination just outside of Estes Park. Similar to Sprague Lake, the 0.8 mile trail around the lake is mostly flat and ideal for strollers and the mobility-challenged. The parking lot is small and can fill up during the day but usually has plenty of space near sunset when wildlife spotting is most likely to occur. Moose and elk are commonly spotted. Kids will be entertained by the dozens of muskrats that live in the lake and swim around like little otters. Those looking for more adventure might want to take the spur trail which climbs up the side of a rocky hill next to the lake.
Coyote Valley Trail
The west side of Rocky Mountain National Park receives less visitation because it is further from the Denver metropolitan area but this section of the park is not to be missed. One of the highlights of this part of the park is the Colorado River. The Coyote Valley Trail is a flat, 1 mile trail which follows the Colorado River (which looks more like a creek) as it runs adjacent to a vast meadow. Hikers are treated to sweeping views of the Never Summer Mountains and frequent wildlife visitors such as elk and moose. Wading in the river is a fun option on a warm day.
Photo by: Flickr/ Julie Falk
This hike is also located on the west side of the park near the resort town of Grand Lake. It is just 0.7 miles round trip to the waterfall, making it a good hike for families with small children. The elevation change is only 100 feet. Kids can wade in the stream. Continue past the falls to discover a meadow where wildlife sightings are frequent.
New to the national parks? Check out our guide to the national parks for first timers.
Best Rocky Mountain National Park Hikes: Easy Tundra Hikes
Trail Ridge Road winds high into the Rockies, taking visitors high into the tundra. Up above 10,000 feet the air is thin, the temps are much cooler, and the wind is usually blowing. Still, there is quite a bit of beauty to discover in the higher elevations. Life above the tree line is fragile, so please remain on the trails at all times
Tundra Communities Trail
This trail begins at Rock Cut, which is 12,100 feet in elevation. Parking can be found in spaces alongside the road. This out-and-back trail is about a mile in length and there is a 260-foot elevation gain. Lichen covered rocks and delicate wildflowers dot the fragile-yet-stunning landscape. A spur trail about half way to trail’s end leads to some interesting toadstool rock formations. At trail’s end there are some rocks to climb. Atop the rocks on the right side there is a very cool geographical marker which shows the distance and direction to several other national parks. Be on the lookout for marmots and pika which love to hang out in the rocky outcroppings.
Alpine Ridge Trail
The Alpine Ridge Trail is less of a hike and more of a stair climb. It gains 207 feet in just 0.3 miles, but the expansive views from the top are well worth the climb. The trail begins at 11,796 feet next to the Alpine Visitor Center. Expect to see wildflowers, marmots, and plenty of people along the way. The Alpine Visitor Center is an incredibly popular destination (and the closest thing to being considered civilization on Trail Ridge Road) so the parking lot can often fill up midday. For the best weather (thunderstorms are common) and chance of securing a spot, visit earlier in the day.
Yes, you’ll need to stay overnight to enjoy all these hikes.
Best Rocky Mountain National Park Hikes: Moderate Day Hikes
Boulder Brook Trail
Photo by: Michelle McCoy
If you are looking for a lightly trafficked trail off Bear Lake Road, the Boulder Brook Trail is a good option. This 4.6-mile out-and-back trail follows a lovely creek for much of the hike and can be accessed from Sprague Lake. It does climb 1,486 feet over the duration of the trail, but you can make it as long or as short as you would like. Bring a hammock and rest by the creek while the kids splash about. Expect to see several small waterfalls and plenty of colorful vegetation during the autumn months.
Photo by: Flickr/ Randy Martin
This trail begins in the Wild Basin area, not far from Estes Park. As with most of the best hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park, it is suggested you arrive early (before 8am) to guarantee a parking spot. Those who park along the road will be ticketed by rangers. The trail follows a river and passes Copeland Falls and the Calypso Cascades before reaching Ouzel Falls at the 2.7 mile mark. When you reach the bridge near the falls, head to the left and follow an unmarked trail which will get you close to the falls.
Photo by: Flickr/Kimon Berlin
This trail begins at the Lumpy Ridge Trailhead, not far from the Estes Park Visitors Center. It is 3.4 miles round trip and has an elevation gain of nearly 1000 feet. There are boulders for the kids to climb on along the way to the lake. There are great views of Estes Park from the trail. Series of steps near the top of the trail as you approach Gem Lake. Chipmunks that live around the lake will climb on you looking for food but remember, it is against park rules to feed the wildlife!
Read more about exploring Rocky Mountain National Park with kids.
All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.