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Estes Park is a mountain lover’s haven, serving as the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP).
This summer resort town is tucked away in the exquisite scenery of Colorado’s Front Range and contains over 350 miles of hiking trails.
Although flocked by tourists during the summer months, you can easily escape into the wilderness and find peace and quiet amongst the trees and plentiful wildlife.
This adventure playground is full of fun 14ers, alpine lakes, and lush wooded forests.
Hiking anywhere in Rocky Mountain National Park is an experience for the memory books — but we are going to list our favorite day hiking trails you don’t want to miss out on.
How to Get There
One of the best things about Estes Park is that it’s easy to get there — no matter the season.
From cities east of the Rockies-Loveland, Fort Collins, Greeley, Longmont, Boulder and Denver, there are no mountain passes to cross and highways that serve the area are well maintained.
Estes Park is just ninety minutes from Denver via car. If you don’t have a car, you can ride the Estes Park Shuttle routing from the Denver International Airport straight into town.
Denver International Airport is the closest international aviation hub — serving for daily flights from major U.S. cities and all over the world.
From the Denver International Airport, you will exit onto Pena Boulevard and take toll road E-470 northwest to I-25. Exit on CO 66 west towards Estes Park. From Lyons, CO you will take Highway 36 to Estes Park.
If you want to avoid the toll road, there are alternate routes that follow I-70 to I-270 then route to Highway 36, although they will add a little bit of time to your drive.
If you have a car, Trail Ridge Road is the most picturesque drive in the area — a highly recommended rest day activity.
The road covers the 48 miles between Estes Park on the park's east side and Grand Lake on the west, winding up to a staggering elevation of 12,183 feet.
The trail ridge tundra offers epic views above the treeline and the opportunity for passerbys to experience wildlife just outside of their vehicles, including pikas, marmots, ptarmigans and bighorn sheep.
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Top 10 Hiking Trails around Estes Park & RMNP
1. Alberta Falls Trail
Most of the hikes in Estes Park take place on the eastern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park.
If you’re a fan of waterfalls and looking for an easy hike or a warm-up, Alberta Falls is a great choice.
This family-friendly trek launches from the Glacier Gorge Junction trailhead and offers sweeping views of the surrounding peaks in addition to stunning waterfalls.
The elevation gain is about 250 feet, making this an easy trail suitable for hikers of all abilities.
If you want to extend your hike, go the full 2.8 miles in to the impressive Mills Lake inside Glacier Gorge.
Distance: 1.6 miles
Time: Approximately 1 hour
Trail Type: Out and backWhere to Start: Bear Lake Trailhead
2. Black Lake Trail
The hike to Black Lake is an extension of the hike to Alberta Falls. This strenuous trek offers some of the most scenic views of Rocky Mountain National Park.
The trail winds through the Glacier Gorge Trail System offering spectacular sights of Mills Lake, Jewel Lake, and Ribbon Falls.
After you reach Alberta Falls, the trail comes to a junction. Follow the Glacier Gorge/Loch Vale trail that bears right until you reach another junction at which point the leftmost trail takes you to Mills Lake and onwards to Black Lake.
This is a challenging hike that poses about a 1,430 foot elevation gain.
Distance: 10 miles
Time: Approximately 6 hours
Trail Type: Out and backWhere to start: Bear Lake Trailhead
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3. Flattop Mountain Trail
If you’re looking for the most exquisite panoramic views of Rocky Mountain National Park, the hike to Flattop Mountain is just for you.
This moderate hiking trail is heavily trafficked — and for good reason.
The hike winds through a varied alpine landscape, gaining nearly 3,000 feet in elevation.
You start at the Bear Lake Trailhead and wind through an aspen forest until the Flattop Mountain Trail takes you up through a series of switchbacks.
Be sure to stop at the Dream Overlook for photo-worthy views of Hallett Peak and Longs Peak.
Next, the trail will take you on a mesmerizing journey through the Krummholz forest to the tundra above the treeline and finally to Flattop Mountain.
Distance: 8.8 miles
Time: Approximately 6 hours
Trail Type: Out and back
Where to start: Bear Lake Trailhead
*Note: If the parking at the Bear Lake trailhead is full, you can park at the Bierstadt trailhead and ride the bus to Bear Lake.
4. Horseshoe Falls Trail
If you’re looking for an easy family-friendly hike, Horseshoe Falls is a solid option.
The falls can actually be viewed from the roadside, but it’s much more rewarding to stroll the short distance from the Alluvial Fan Trailhead.
Take the Fall River Road to Old Fall River Road and access the East Alluvial Fan Trailhead about half a mile up Old Fall River Road.
The trail has experienced past incidents of flooding, so it’s recommended to navigate the terrain with caution and don't forget your hiking emergency kit.
Horseshoe Falls is a lovely cascading waterfall that twists and turns down the rocky landscape.
The trail is relatively flat, including little more than one hundred feet in elevation gain, so is suitable for most hikers.
Distance: 0.4 miles
Time: Approximately less than 1 hour
Trail Type: Out and backWhere to start: Alluvial Fan Trailhead
5. Granite Falls Trail
Perfect for the moderate hiker, the trail to Granite Falls offers everything you could want to experience in Rocky Mountain National Park within a single hike — including forests, meadows, and creeksides.
Your journey will take you through Big Meadows, which when in season offers splendid views of wildflowers.
Although you’ll cover plenty of miles, the elevation gain is only about 1,000 feet so this is an ideal trek to evaluate your fitness level and could serve as a warm-up for more strenuous hikes in the park.
When you reach Granite Falls, you’ll experience the waters of Tonahutu Creek cascading fifty feet down a landscape of granite slabs.
Distance: 10.2 miles
Time: Approximately 5-7 hours
Trail Type: Out and backWhere to start: Green Mountain Trailhead
6. Moraine Park Loop
This is one of the most popular hikes in the area, taking you on a relatively flat journey around Moraine Park, which serves as a prime spot for grazing elk and wildlife.
If you’re looking to see elk during your visit, this hike grants you the perfect opportunity.
Moraine Park is an example of where a glacier once settled and then receded, leaving a broad, level plain in its wake.
The area is intersected by both the Big Thompson River and Cub Creek.
From the Moraine Park Trailhead, you’ll follow a path to Cub Lake Road, which leads to the Cub Lake Trailhead.
Bear left on Cub Lake Trail which then reaches the Lateral Moraine Trail Split.
Keep left until you merge with a Park Service Road which will take you back to the trailhead.
Distance: 5.5 miles
Time: Approximately 3 hours
Trail Type: LoopWhere to start: Moraine Park Discovery Center
7. Sky Pond Trail
This spectacular journey starts at the Bear Lake trailhead like so many of the trails on this list, first passing Alberta Falls, which in of itself is a quality hike.
The Sky Pond trail takes high you up into high mountain scenery, offering views of three prominent peaks — Petit Grepon, the Sabre, and Sharkstooth.
Follow the Glacier Gorge/Loch Vale trail up to Timberline Falls.
To reach the Lake of Glass and Sky Pond beyond this point involves slightly technical scrambling up the right side of a waterfall — so wear proper hiking boots with plenty of traction.
The Lake of Glass is just a quarter mile beyond Timberline Falls and then another quarter mile leads to Sky Pond — your final destination where you can enjoy stunning views of alpine scenery including fields of columbines and marsh marigolds.
The elevation gain is more than 1,500 feet.
Distance: 8.4 miles
Time: Approximately 5-6 hours
Trail Type: Out and backWhere to start: Bear Lake Trailhead or Glacier Gorge Trailhead
8. The Pool Trail
Although the name might be deceiving, this hike does not lead to a popular swimming area.
Quite the opposite, the Pool is comprised of swirling cascades that have etched a deep pool of fast moving currents of water.
It is appealing to tourists because it is an easy hike and the views of the waters are magnificent.
There are plenty of points of interests along the Fern Creek Trail leading to the Pool, including Arch Rocks and the Windy Gulch Cascades.
There are also plenty of places to stop and fish along the banks of the Big Thompson River.
The elevation gain is minimal — so enjoy this gently undulating stroll through the wilderness to the treasures at its end.
Distance: 3.4 miles
Time: Approximately 2 hours
Trail Type: Out and backWhere to start: Fern Lake Trailhead
9. Falcon Falls Trail
If you’re fit, acclimated, and have some backcountry navigational skills, consider hiking to Falcon Falls — it’s quite the adventure. I would still play it safe and bring along your favorite Garmin hiking gps.
Situated in a remote part of the Wild Basin, Falcon Falls is one of two waterfalls that pour down from Thunder Lake.
This is a demanding, all-day journey that requires an early start — but the views are worth the effort.
Falcon Falls isn’t the only body of water you’ll encounter along your journey — the trail winds past Thunder Lake, Fan Falls, Copeland Falls, the Calypso Cascades, and Ouzel Falls.
Because of the difficulty and length of the journey, many people make this a multi-day excursion.
Difficulty: Very Difficult
Distance: 15.5-16.5 miles
Time: Approximately 8-11 hours
Trail Type: Out and backWhere to start: Wild Basin Trailhead
10. Lake Haivaha Trail
If you’re looking to escape the crowds, head out towards Lake Haiyaha, located in a sprawling valley.
This is a moderate trek that provides for some fantastic views, including Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and then on to Lake Haiyaha.
Be prepared for switchbacks through spruce and fir forests and be aware of some possible boulder scrambling as you approach the final lake.
Similar to other trails in the area, the trail routing to Lake Haiyaha begins on the way to Bear Lake, but requires veering off to your left at the trailhead sign.
You’ll gain less than 1,000 feet in elevation so it shouldn’t be very strenuous in that aspect.
Distance: 4.2 miles
Time: Approximately 2-3 hours
Trail Type: Out and backWhere to start: Bear Lake Trailhead
Rocky Mountain National Park attracts tourists and outdoor enthusiasts from all over the world — so expect some crowds in Estes Park, but rest assured you’ll be able to find tranquility in the wilderness.
There is plenty of camping in the area if that is your cup of tea but you won’t be hard pressed to find other accommodations, either.
Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park is a rewarding experience that trumps much of the other trails in Colorado — so think of it like striking gold.
Our only advice? Be prepared for the elevation and remember to leave no trace.
There's nothing more enjoyable after a hike than going back to a place that feels like a second home. That's why we prefer staying at any of these vacation rentals around Estes Park on VRBO...
Over to you...
Which of these trails have you hiked or are looking forward to hiking? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!
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About the Author - Ashley
Ashley's a Florida girl that didn't see snow until her twenty's. Andrew initiated her with a January trip to Breckenridge and the rest is history! A flatlander most of her life, Ashley now craves challenging trails but isn't a fan of log crossings over rapidily flowing mountain streams. Click here to learn more about Ashley's outdoorsy background...