Trail Running in Rocky Mountain National Park: An Insider’s Guide

While it’s true that any trail you can hike, you can run, in Rocky Mountain National Park it pays to pick the right path. The most popular destinations are often clogged with tourists, which can hinder your physical and mental momentum. Here’s a few select choices that visit some of the more secluded areas of the park but are still easy to access.

One of the very best running trails is the St. Vrain Trail from the St. Vrain Mountain trailhead. Interestingly enough, this trail doesn’t actually begin within park boundaries—you’ll cross over into part territory after you pop out of treeline around three miles in. The bonus here is that you won’t have to pay for park admission, the trailhead parking is free.

Aspen corridor on the St. Vrain Trail. James DziezynskiAspen corridor on the St. Vrain Trail. James Dziezynski

Aspen corridor on the St. Vrain Trail.  - James Dziezynski

The St. Vrain Trail begins in a beautiful pine and aspen forest and maintains a smooth, gradual grade for the first 10 to 20 minutes of running. After about a mile and half, the trail abruptly begins to contour up a series of switchbacks. The grade gets a bit steeper but nothing too intense, with the exception that you’re now running over 9,000 feet. Just around three miles in, the forest begins to open up to a wide open alpine saddle with incredible views of Copeland Mountain, St. Vrain Mountain, and Meadow Mountain. You’ll also pass into park territory here, where runners have a few options.

Go off trail to the north (right) and work up the 11,632-foot Meadow Mountain or stay left on the St. Vrain Trail. The large, dome of a peak off this path is St. Vrain Mountain at 12,162 feet. There’s no formal trail but it’s easy navigation up grassy slopes to its impressive summit. A round trip out and back to the top is just under nine miles. Finally, you can stay on the trail and drop down into the next basin and eventually, the Buchanan Pass Trail (almost all downhill). It’s about 2.3 miles from the flanks of St. Vrain Mountain to the intersection of the trails.

In the park proper, the Wild Basin area is an excellent place to get in a tough but peaceful run. Sand Beach Lake trailhead is just after the pay gate (this is a normal, paid access area of the park—$20 per vehicle). On hot summer days, this trail stays under the shade of pine and aspen forests all the way to the lake (4.2 miles one-way). In the autumn, the Sand Beach Lake Trail is paved with gold and red aspen leaves and the cool mountain air is simply divine.

Farther down the road from the Wild Basin entrance is the Wild Basin trailhead. The gem of a run here is along the main trail that starts to Copeland Falls and continues on to Lion Lakes. It’s good mileage to Lion Lakes—14 miles out and back—but the trail is flat for the first three miles and after that, only gradually increases in elevation. For a little more vertical, the 6.8-mile option (one way) to Thunder Lake offers a bit more rocky terrain.

The Keyhole on Longs Peak, a popular turnaround point for runners. James DziezynskiThe Keyhole on Longs Peak, a popular turnaround point for runners. James Dziezynski

The Keyhole on Longs Peak, a popular turnaround point for runners. - James Dziezynski

It should be noted that the Longs Peak trailhead is of interest to many runners, though be warned, this is one of the most heavily traveled trails in the park. Car parking is free, but the lot often fills up long before sunrise. Many trail runners opt to get to the trailhead around 9 or 10am and run an out and back to the Boulder Field (about 5.5 miles in). A classic among Colorado runners is to run to the fabled Keyhole (the start of the technical scrambling section up Longs) and back, for a 12.5 mile run. The crowds disperse after the first mile or two and the trail is wide enough to pass in most places. It may be busy but the views of this incredible area are worth it.

Along the Chapin to Chiquita trail run. Sheila PowellAlong the Chapin to Chiquita trail run. Sheila Powell

Along the Chapin to Chiquita trail run. - Sheila Powell

If you want a run that mostly stays above treeline check out the Chapin Creek Trailhead. There’s a prelude to the peaks in sparse treeline for a little over a mile, then the epic alpine plateau that connects Chapin, Chiquita, and Ypsilon Peaks opens up. You’re going to be chugging up over 12,000 feet so it’s difficult to hammer out this seven-mile out and back run, but as your lungs burn you’ll be treated to some of the most iconic views in Colorado.

Finally, as a bit of a bonus there’s always the option to run Trail Ridge Road itself when the road closes, usually from mid-October until April. There may or may not be snow. In winter, this road allows leashed dogs (don’t stray from the road) so it’s a rare opportunity to visit RMNP with your pooch! Run as long you like—the entire road is 48 miles one way, so you likely won’t be doing the whole thing.