Rocky Mountain National Park is brimming with a near-obscene abundance of natural beauty—including some of the highest mountains in the continental U.S., six glaciers, more than 100 pristine alpine lakes, lush forested valleys, and the kind of high-alpine terrain that hikers dream of. Moose roam the west side of the park, while elk patrol the east side. In between, a wide range of plants and animals call Rocky their home. It’s a special place, even by American national park standards.
While it can be tough to narrow down the best hikes in the park, given that there are over 300 miles of hiking trails alone (and all of them are worth exploring), that’s what we’ve attempted to do here. Each trail was selected because it showcases the grandeur of the park, in one way or another. All of them are real, honest-to-goodness hikes—don’t show up unprepared. Bring enough water, get started as early as you can (as in, before dawn, if you want to beat the crowds and the afternoon storms), and be ready to exert some effort.
Listed in order of mileage, here are the best day hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Although not technically located in Rocky Mountain National Park, Gem Lake is, well, a total gem. Located just north of Estes Park, this (extremely) well-marked trail is a steep climb that’s well-worth your efforts. Emphasis on efforts—although this trail is under 4 miles long, the elevation gain is substantial. Taking off from the Lumpy Ridge trailhead (one of RMNP’s most popular climbing crags), the trail winds through peaceful aspen groves upward to Gem Lake, a small-but-pretty pool of water flanked by towering, craggy rock walls, with excellent views extending south toward Longs Peak (the park’s one and only fourteener). Allow at least two to three hours for this hike (or longer), because you’ll definitely want to take your time hanging out at the lake, picnicking, and exploring the rock formations.
- Round-trip Mileage: 3.4 miles
- Elevation Gain: 1,000 feet
- Total Elevation: 7,870 feet
- Trailhead: Lumpy Ridge
On the southeast side of the park, Ouzel Falls makes for a wonderful, scenic half-day outing, especially if you’re into waterfalls as this trail is replete with them. Not long after you leave the trailhead, be sure to take the slight detour (just a half-mile round-trip) to check out Lower and Upper Copeland Falls before heading back to the main trail. (Alternately, you can opt to do this on the way back down, if you’d prefer to conserve your energy for the big falls.) A couple miles in, you’ll come across Calypso Cascades, a 200-foot-tall gush of water that streams down the mountainside, over giant boulders and flowing under two long bridges. It’s certainly a worthy photo-op. Just a little further, at 2.7 miles in (after a moderate climb through clusters of spruce and fir trees), you’ve reached your destination: the powerful Ouzel Falls. Just a note: This trail is very popular, especially in the summer, so you’ll definitely want to get on the trail bright and early (we’re talking 7 a.m. or earlier) if you want to evade the crowds.
- Round-trip Mileage: 5.4 miles
- Elevation Gain: 870 feet
- Total Elevation: 8,500 feet
- Trailhead: Wild Basin
Chapin, Chiquita, Ypsilon
If you went to Rocky and didn’t do Chapin, Chiquita, Ypsilon, did you really go to Rocky? We kid, we kid—sort of. Everyone loves the Chapin-Chiquita-Ypsilon trifecta, for good reason. Yes, you get to bag three peaks in a single hike. And yes, compared to other peak-bagging hikes in the park, this trek isn’t quite as intense (Mount Chiquita is known for being one of the easiest 13ers). But mostly, CCY is beloved for its truly exceptional views, all along the trail. On a clear day, you can see everything in the area: the town of Estes Park to the east, the Desolation Peaks and Longs Peak to the north and east, and the Never Summer range and Medicine Bow peaks in Wyoming extending to the west. As with all above-treeline hikes in Rocky, it’s crucial to get on the trail at dawn, to make sure you’re headed down before the afternoon thunderstorms start to roll in (in which case, the last place you want to be is on an exposed ridge).
- Round-trip Mileage: 8.9 miles
- Elevation Gain: 3,244 feet
- Total Elevation: 13,514 feet
- Trailhead: Chapin Creek
Sky Pond and Lake of Glass
Starting at the Glacier Gorge trailhead, the trek up to Sky Pond and Lake of Glass is thoroughly enjoyable, offering hikers a comprehensive look at the sheer beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park. This hike has a little bit of everything—ice-blue glacial lakes ringed by snow-capped peaks, river and stream crossings amidst towering pines, and heart-stopping vistas of the park. It’s impossible to get bored along the trail; there’s simply too much to soak in. Though the last push to the top is definitely challenging (and there’s a bit of fairly technical scrambling involved), the view from Lake of Glass is worth every bit of the climb: Nothing says picturesque like jagged granite spires poking into the clouds, mirrored in the crystal-clear waters of a peaceful mountain lake. Pro-tip: There’s a good chance you’ll get wet on this hike, since you’ll be scrambling up a (very slippery) waterfall at the end; be sure to wear waterproof clothing and sturdy shoes.
- Round-trip Mileage: 9.5 miles
- Elevation Gain: 1,837 feet
- Total Elevation: 9,240 feet
- Trailhead: Glacier Gorge
If you want to do a glorious summit hike that offers some of the most incredible views in Rocky Mountain National Park, Mount Ida is the one for you. Well-marked and maintained, Mount Ida isn’t quite as popular as other peaks in the park (oddly, it doesn’t always appear on maps), which is a huge plus. It’s moderate by RMNP standards, but definitely still challenging, and the last mile to the summit traverses some pretty rugged terrain. All in all, you’ll enjoy some truly spectacular views along much of the route, from otherworldly tundra flats to never-ending views of the Rockies. You should reserve at least six to seven hours for this hike, and be prepared for a variety of weather conditions—the earlier you can start, the better.
- Round-trip Mileage: 9.6 miles
- Elevation Gain: 2,362 feet
- Total Elevation: 10,759 feet
- Trailhead: Poudre Lake at Milner Pass
Flattop and Hallett Peaks
For a heart-pumping incline with a big pay-off, the double-whammy of Flattop and Hallett makes for a wonderful day hike. These peaks provide the gorgeous backdrop behind the popular Dream and Emerald Lake—you can peer down and wave at the crowds. The views along the trail just keep getting better the further you go up, culminating with a panoramic look at the Continental Divide once you reach the Flattop summit.
- Round-trip Mileage: 10.3 miles
- Elevation Gain: 3,293 feet
- Total Elevation: 9,475 feet
- Trailhead: Bear Lake
Mills, Black, and Frozen Lakes
The Mills-Black-Frozen trek is, simply put, the most beautiful hike in the park. That’s because, more so than other, perhaps more celebrated hikes, the jaunt up to Frozen Lake is chock-full of all the features that you could ever hope to get from a single hike in RMNP: alpine meadows laced with streams and candy-colored wildflowers, clear, gushing waterfalls, expansive vistas, lush forest groves. And of course, three of the prettiest lakes in Rocky: Mills Lake, Black Lake, and Frozen Lake. Pick one or, ideally, do all three.
- Round-trip Mileage: 11 miles
- Elevation Gain: 2,529 feet
- Trailhead: Glacier Gorge
Ouzel and Bluebird Lakes
On the Ouzel Falls trail, past the falls themselves, lie two stunning alpine lakes: Ouzel Lake and Bluebird Lake. At nearly 13 miles round-trip (and, not to mention, a 2,500-foot elevation gain), this is by no means an easy trek, but it’s one that pays off in spades. Once you come over the final ridge and catch your first glimpse of Bluebird, the miles will melt away in your memory—all you’ll be able to think about is how breathtaking the lake is, with its jewel-colored waters and dramatic location, right at the base of Ouzel Peak. Best of all, depending on the season and how early you start, there’s a good chance that you may have this view all to yourself.
- Round-trip Mileage: 12.6 miles
- Elevation Gain: 2,490 feet
- Trailhead: Wild Basin