Rocky Mountain National Park is a United States national park located approximately 76 miles northwest of Denver International Airport in north-central Colorado, within the front range of the rocky mountains. The park is situated between the town of Estes Park to the east and Grand Lake to the west. The eastern and western slopes of the continental divide run directly through the center of the park with the headwaters of the colorado river located in the parks northwestern region. The main features of the park include mountains, alpine lakes, and a wide variety of wildlife within various climates and environments, from wooded forests to mountain tundra.
Here are 5 days worth of day hikes that I easily did while staying in Estes Park where there is plenty of lodging options, restaurants, and entertainment available.
Day 1- Land above the trees
I took the famous Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved road in the US to the Ute Trail trailhead. A stop at the alpine visitor center was a great idea for a restroom break and to buy souvenirs. The Ute trail is an important travel and trade route over the continental divide for native peoples. I saw evidence of volcanoes and glaciers, and kept my eyes peeled for elk, bighorn sheep, and maybe even the elusive wolverine, which is slowly returning to remote areas within Colorado. The trail is all above treeline, so I was glad I brought warm layers. The trail began at the headwaters of the Colorado River, and offered beautiful views of Mt. Ida, the Medicine Bow, Stormy Peaks, and Never Summer mountain ranges that surrounded me. I saw marmots playing around on the side of the trail in the rocks.
Day 2- Alpine rivers, waterfalls, and lakes
Today I found the pleasures and power of mountain water: from rushing rivers and waterfalls, to high mountain lakes. My hike took me through the reaches of Wild Basin, a wildlife and flower strewn region of the park. I saw a momma and baby moose!
I hiked along the South Saint Vrain River, past Calypso Cascades and Ouzel Falls to Ouzel lake and the mountain cirque that envelopes it.
Day 3- Mountain Cirques and High Peaks:
This hike headed into the land of glaciers, past and present. The route took me past Alberta Falls into the sub-alpine forest, and to an emerald string of mountain lakes, from Mills to Jewel, and at last to Black Lake, which sits in a silent and imposing mountain cirque, a testament to the power of glacial ice. The granite crags above me had names like Spearhead and Keyboard of the Winds. *Please note if you plan to do this hike, the trailhead fills up very early but there is a free park and ride hiker shuttle that the park offers for free.*
Day 4- Chasm lake and longs peak
I actually had to cut this hike short due to 40 mph winds that were literally knocking me over. Hitting your shins, and maybe your head, on rocks is no fun. Here’s a nice shot of Long’s Peak I was able to get before I turned around.
Plan B Hike – Lumpy ridge and Gem lake
The Gem lake trailhead is only 10 minutes from Estes Park and 4 miles long. it’s a good one to do at the beginning or end of a trip or as a plan B if other hikes are not doable due to weather. As I walked, I took in panoramic views of Longs Peak, the Continental Divide, Trail Ridge road, much of the country I walked through over the past few days. The trail provided excellent opportunities for photography. Gem lake itself is a great place to have a picnic lunch or just chill for a while (watch out for the chipmunks who have become experts at self serving food from your backpack or picnic! ).
Day 5- Nymph lake, Dream lake, Emerald Lake, and Lake Haiyaha
All of these lakes are from the Bear lake trailhead, another stop by the free park and ride shuttle.
Recommended lodging in Estes Park:
The Stanley Hotel (https://www.stanleyhotel.com)- 142 room Colonial revival hotel approximately 5 miles from the entrance to the national park. It offers panoramic views of Lake Estes, the Rockies, and especially Long’s Peak. It was built by Freelan Oscar Stanley of Stanley Steamer and opened in 1909. The hotel and its surrounding structures are listed on the national register of historic places. The Stanley hotel hosted the horror novelist Stephen King, serving as inspiration for the Overlook Hotel in his bestseller THE SHINING and its 1980 film adaptation of the same name, as well as the location for the 1997 miniseries. Today it includes a restaurant, whiskey bar, and spa and provides guided tours which feature the history and alleged paranormal activity of the site.
Scenes from Jim Carey’s movie DUMB AND DUMBER were also filmed here. Oh and you never know what celebrity or wild visitor will show up! While I was there, a bear wandered into the lobby in the middle of the night. Link to video: https://people.com/pets/black-bear-breaks-into-the-shining-hotel/
For dinner, Bird and Jim- Make an advanced reservation unless you would like to sit at the bar. https://www.birdandjim.com
For breakfast, THE EGG AND I – The avocado toast and fresh squeezed juices are delicious. https://theeggandirestaurants.com/location/estes-park-co/
KIND COFFEE is also a great place for coffee and breakfast- You can watch the elk graze right from the window or from the tables outside on the river.
If you would like a package tour with everything arranged, Wildland Trekking offers a great inn based tour: https://www.wildlandtrekking.com/colorado-hiking/inn-based-hiking/best-of-rocky-mountain.html