Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park: An Insider’s Guide

Rocky Mountain National Park is a glorious place to behold, which explains why so many tourists rarely venture more than a mile in on its vast network of trails. With the exception of the wildly popular trails to Longs Peak and Chasm Lake, the crowds thin out dramatically the further along the trail you go. Hikers who make the extra effort to wander away from the paved roads will discover beautiful alpine settings that showcase a less hectic and more wild side of the park.

No other area embodies the pristine wilderness than the terrain accessed out of Wild Basin. A less visited area than the Trail Ridge Road section of the park, Wild Basin’s main access path is the Thunder Lake/Ouzel Falls Trail. Ouzel Falls is a modest but majestic waterfall that sets the stage for the hiking destinations beyond. There are about 6 miles of forest to hike through before breaching treeline—and this is where it really gets good.

Descending Boulder Grand Pass in August by James  Dziezynski Descending Boulder Grand Pass in August by James  Dziezynski

Descending Boulder Grand Pass in August. - James Dziezynski

A fork in the trail splits southwest to Thunder Lake and Boulder Grand Pass. Thunder Lake is tranquil and isolated, ringed by the fading high-alpine forests that give way to the rocky walls of the surrounding peaks, including the snowy saddle that is Boulder Grand Pass. The northern fork gradually opens up to one of RMNP’s best kept secrets: the Lion Lakes. This chain of lakes comes into view as the trail fades to a whisper with the highest pond above treeline.

An excellent loop for strong hikers is continuing on from Lion Lakes to Mount Alice, Tanima Peak, then down Boulder Grand Pass to Thunder Lake. It’s a whopping 18 miles round trip but can be done in a day, thanks to the six miles in and out on the relatively flat and speedy access trail. Even more challenging is a hike to Isolation Peak or to the seldom seen Moomaw Glacier, all out of Wild Basin.

In contrast to Wild Basin’s serene ambiance, the Longs Peak trailhead is a busy, bustling place, but one worth visiting. It’s the one major section of the park that doesn’t require a fee to visit and the namesake 14,255-foot peak is one of Colorado’s most popular hikes. Longs Peaks is a demanding 15-mile round-trip adventure that features exposed scrambling and is an unforgettable experience.

Looking south from Meadow Mountain. Looking south from Meadow Mountain.

Looking south from Meadow Mountain.  - James Dziezynski

Start early if you want to bag the peak—even strong hikers are on the trail at 2am. If you want a more casual day, hiking to Chasm Lake (along the same shared trail for the first four miles) is a nice option, as is just wandering around the boulder fields before the Keyhole, Longs’ infamous notch that grants scrambling access to the main hiking route.

Not all hikes need to end at a summit, as the scenic trails from Bear Lake trailhead and Glacier Gorge can attest to. These are peaceful, moderate outings and many are perfect for families. Bear Lake, Jewel Lake, Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, Cub Lake and Emerald Lake are just a few of the lake options that are excellent for a casual day out. Bear Lake is literally right there at the aptly named Bear Lake trailhead parking lot. The Loch, and Mills Lake are slightly more challenging hikes that are still easily accessed by hikers looking for a casual day out. Never fret, there are still summits to climb for those yearning for big vertical—Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain are both superb, all-day walk-ups accessed from the Bear Lake trailhead.

Looking down the Ypsilon Couloir near the summit of Ypsilon Mountain. Looking down the Ypsilon Couloir near the summit of Ypsilon Mountain.

Looking south from Meadow Mountain.  - James Dziezynski

High off Trail Ridge Road is the slight detour to Old Fall River Road, where hikers can access the Chapin Peak trailhead. Following a well-maintained and easy to navigate Class 2 trail, hikers break treeline at the foot of 12,454-foot Mount Chapin. From there, the high, rolling alpine tundra continues along broad ridgelines to Mount Chiquita (13,069 ft.) and eventually to Ypsilon Mountain (13,154 ft.) These peaks border on the Mummy Range, a sub-range of of the Rocky Mountains that include Fairchild Mountain (13,502 ft.) and Mummy Mountain (13,430 feet).

Finally, for those looking for a hidden side of the park even more remote than Wild Basin, try the East Inlet Trail on the west side of the park. This trail is popular for backcountry backpackers, but also serves well as a day hike destination. Lone Pine Lake, Spirit Lake, and Lake Verna are three of the best destinations. All feature dramatic views of the high peaks along with deep forests. This outpost is an excellent place to seek wildlife beyond the plentiful elk that hang out throughout the park. Black bear, moose, bobcat, porcupine and other critters call this domain home.

For the truly adventurous, a cross park tour from East Inlet over Boulder Grand Pass ending at Wild Basin is one of Colorado’s supreme backpacking adventures, especially in the colorful and cool autumn months.