Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most beautiful and sought after places for hiking in the United States. Just over 3 million people visit the park each year to go camping, enjoy the breathtaking scenery, and of course...hike! But with approximately 80 trails to choose from, Rocky Mountain National Park can be intimidating as a first time visitor.
Much like many of you, when we arrived in Estes Park we found ourselves with only one real problem, time. We were visiting for a wedding and so despite being in Colorado for almost a week, we only had two days to ourselves. We did a ton of research beforehand and of all the amazing hiking trails to choose from, we finally narrowed it down to two. One a bit easier for the first day and a second that promised more of a challenge for the second day. If you're a first time visitor in a bit of a time crunch, then this post is for you!
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1. Emerald Lake
Miles: 3.5 Kilometers: 5.6
We choose to hike to Emerald Lake the first day because it was a shorter hike and we didn't want to be too worn out the next day for our longer hike. We also chose to hike to Emerald Lake because of the breathtaking scenery we encountered along the way. There is a reason this trail is often extremely crowded, IT IS GORGEOUS! You will pass by three different breathtakingly beautiful lakes with serene mountain views surrounding each one.
If you are willing to put up with the crowds, the hike to Emerald Lake is a must do when visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. But be warned, you will most likely have to fight through some pretty thick crowds pretty much any time of year.
Pro Voyager Tip #1: If you do not want to ride the shuttle to the starting point of Emerald Lake, arrive as early as possible so you can get a parking spot at the trailhead.
We arrived at the trailhead of Emerald Lake (which is located at the parking lot for Bear Lake) around 8:15 am. There were about 10 parking spots left at the time but I imagine they filled up pretty quickly. If you do not make it in time to claim a parking spot, don’t worry, riding the shuttle is fairly painless and the drivers are very friendly.
Next Stop - Mountain fun
Pro Voyager Tip #2: In the spring and early summer months, check with a ranger about the conditions of the trail.
When we arrived at Dream Lake (the last lake before arriving at Emerald Lake) most of the lake was still frozen and we had to walk on packed down snow that had turned into ice for the rest of the trail.
We saw many people with cleats strapped over their hiking boots at this point. I would HIGHLY recommend renting some if there is the possibility of snow/ice on your trek. I fell numerous times on the snow which had been packed down into ice from people walking on it.
After experiencing the ice/snow on the hike to Emerald Lake, we rented cleats from Estes Park Mountain Shop to go over our boots for our hike the next day. Man were they a lifesaver.
2. Sky Pond
Miles: 9 (roundtrip) Kilometers: 14.4
Scenery: Wide variety of gorgeous scenery
Crowds: Heavy at the beginning light halfway through
The hike to Sky Pond was one of the most challenging I have experienced since my trek up Mount Kilimanjaro. We knew we wanted to attempt something a little more difficult on our second day visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, and Sky Pond definitely delivered.
Ready Or Not Here We Go
The trail towards Sky Pond starts at the Glacier Gorge trailhead and takes you past the Alberta Falls waterfall. This part of the hike is very crowded as well, but as soon as you pass by the waterfall, the crowds start fading quickly.
You will most likely have to take a shuttle to get to the Glacier Gorge trailhead, as the parking lot is much smaller than the parking lot at Bear Lake. Unless you are an extremely early riser, give yourself an extra ½ hour before you want to be on the trail to ride the shuttle.
Unlike the hike to Emerald Lake, the scenery after passing by Alberta Falls is pretty dull for a while. But trust me when I say it pays off.
Once again we soon ran into snow/ice on the trail. We were very thankful for the cleats we decided to rent. I had read about a vertical rock scramble that is at the end of the trail towards Sky Pond and wasn't quite looking forward to it due to my fear of heights. But fear often fades into adrenaline; and who doesn't enjoy a good ol’ adrenaline rush every once in a while!
Unfortunately, the rock scramble I read about was nowhere to be found, because the valley was still completely snowed in. We did, however, get to experience another kind of adrenaline rush though, walking on the side of a steep ice shelf, hoping to not slip and slid all the way down into the bowl of the valley.
There is nothing quite like hiking through the wilderness when it is blanketed in 10-feet of snow.
Sky Pond is challenging but pays off with a spectacular variety of scenery.
Why do you love to hike? Check out Destination Addicts post for some more hiking inspiration!
Rocky Mountain National Park Information
1-day pass: $20 (per vehicle)
1-day pass: $10 (per person)
7-day consecutive pass: $30 (per vehicle)
7-day consecutive pass: $15 (per person)
There is also an annual unlimited entry pass available for $60.
Hours/Seasons: Rocky Mountain National Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, weather permitting.
Although, be sure to check the status of the park roads as some roads close seasonally.
Camping and Backcountry Camping
Rocky Mountain National Park has 5 campgrounds:
- Aspenglen Campground
- Glacier Basin Campground
- Longs Peak Campground
- Moraine Park Campground
- Timber Creek Campground
I would highly recommend making a reservation. The campgrounds are usually booked all summer. From June 1 through September 30 you can only stay for 7 total days at a campsite. From September 30 to June 1 you may stay an additional 14 days.
Backcountry camping requires a permit and it is possible to make reservations online. You can also visit the two different Wilderness Offices. They will also give you updated information about the trails and weather conditions. Make sure you bring along a backpacking tent suitable for the weather and that is easy to carry!
Where to Stay:
Rocky Mountain National Park is located on the west side of Estes Park. Estes Park is a gorgeous mountain town that hosts the incredibly famous Stanley Hotel. There are many different places to stay in Estes Park if camping isn’t your forte.
Estes Park is right in the middle of the action, thus making it a pretty expensive place to stay. There are a wide variety of gorgeous vacation homes overlooking mountain views. There are also some no-frills motels right in the middle of town that will cost you around $80-$150 per night. The best part about staying in one of these motels is that no matter where you are in Estes Park, you can pretty much see the mountains.
Budget - Whispering Pines
$120 per night
We stayed in a great little single room cottage at a family owned establishment. If you are looking for a great place at a budget price- this is place right up your alley. Costing $120 a night, it comes complete with a kitchenette and your own private patio and fire ring right next to the babbling Big Thompson river.
Mid-Range- The Estes Park Resort
$250 per night
The Estes Park Resort is one of the iconic resorts you will first see when strolling into Estes Park. It has an indoor pool and hot tub, spa, restaurant, and lakefront view.
Luxury- Beaver Brook on the River
$350 per night (Two bedroom townhouse)
Grab some friends and stay in style! Beaver Brook boasts two-bedroom townhouse complete with your own hot tub on the porch, gorgeous views, a full kitchen, and your very own fireplace.