My Favorite Spots in Rocky Mountain National Park

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I haven’t written nearly enough about my amazing summer living in Rocky Mountain National Park and the exploring that afforded me. While I wasn’t able to carry out some of the longer adventures I had planned (thank you 8-week-long sinus infection!), I was able to get out for a hike on most weekends. Rocky Mountain was an interesting park for me as it was by far the most crowded of all of the parks I have lived and worked in. Due to its proximity to the heavily populated front-range area of Colorado, this park gets almost as many visitors per year as Yellowstone – with only a quarter of the acreage. To visit happily here required a change in mindset for me. But soon enough I learned to make people-watching a part of my wilderness experience – and found that humans can be just as interesting to watch in the wilds as the native species. 😉

In any case, while the entirety of Rocky Mountain National Park is breathtakingly beautiful, I found there were a few spots particularly worth battling the crowds for…

Favorite Overlook

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Forest Canyon Overlook

Distance: 0.2 miles one-way; 0.4 miles round-trip

Elevation gain: Negligible

I actually didn’t visit this overlook until my very last morning in the park when, my car packed to the brim, I approached the simple parking lot and felt compelled to pull over. The view isn’t immediately evident from the area along the Trail Ridge Road on which this short trail and overlook exists, and your car has already done the hard work for you by climbing high into the mountains. Trust me when I say that a walk along this short, paved trail might be the best place to stretch out your legs along the entire Trail Ridge Road. The views are truly spectacular, and pulling over to see them saves your driver the stress of trying to check out the mountains while navigating that steep and winding road.

Favorite Place to Take a Walk in the Park

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Alluvial Fan

Distance: 0.3 miles one-way to the alluvial fan; 0.6 miles round-trip (without taking any wanderings into account)

Elevation gain: 20 ft (once again, not counting your wanderings)

This short trail near the Fall River entrance to the park leads to a very interesting water feature called the alluvial fan. The fan consists of a debris field created when a dam broke upstream several years ago. Seeing the massive spread of boulders left behind really gave me a heart-poundingly clear vision of the roar of water that must have passed through the area. The trail was once paved, but was heavily damaged during the September 2013 floods (in general, and at the time of writing, this is a very good place to view the damage from the flood, should you be interested in that sort of thing). It is still a very navigable path for most people, but I might recommend doing it in a pair of sturdy shoes.

This is an especially nice place to wander a bit, as the fan is large and the places to stick your toes in the stream abundant. As always, use caution on wet boulders and near fast-moving water.

Favorite Above Tree-Line View

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Alpine Ridge Trail

Distance: 0.6 miles one-way; 1.2 miles round-trip

Elevation gain: 200 feet-ish (the sources I check cited this climb as anywhere from 130 to 300 feet)

This steep climb to the top of the mountain right next to the Alpine Visitor Center is well worth every paved step. This is an excellent place to check out the alpine tundra (from the trail, of course) and the views from the top are 360 degrees of amazing.

Favorite ‘Bang-for-your-Buck’ Hike

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Emerald Lake

Distance: 1.8 miles one-way; 3.6 miles round-trip

Elevation gain: 605 feet

This easy-to-moderate trail is well-maintained and passes around not one, but three spectacular alpine lakes – Nymph Lake, Dream Lake (pictured above), and Emerald Lake – in less than two-miles. Weekenders beware – this trail is no secret and can be very crowded. The views were worth the masses to me, but if solitude is what you desire this might be one to save for a weekday or off-season visit.

Favorite Long Hike

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Thunder Lake

Distance: 6.8 miles one-way; 13.6 miles round-trip

Elevation gain: 2,074 feet

The first trail I ever hiked in the park continues to be one of my very favorites, and a great option for escaping the crowds. In general, it takes several miles to lose the hordes at Rocky Mountain National Park in the summer, but this hike seemed to do the trick. If 13.6 miles is too intimidating a distance for a day-hike for you, consider camping at the nearby campsites (for information on backcountry permits, click here). Austin and I went to Thunder Lake as an overnight trip, and I found the distance and elevation to be very manageable with my overnight pack.

Favorite Hike Overall

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Mills Lake

Distance: 2.8 miles one-way; 5.6 miles round-trip

Elevation gain: 750 feet

Oh Mills Lake, my favorite of all the lakes I visited this summer, you are so very, very enchanting! I found this hike to be the perfect combination of distance and elevation to get my appetite up without totally exhausting me. And the views really are outstanding. The very helpful volunteer at the trailhead told us this is the vista that the design on the Colorado state coin was modeled after. And I sure do believe him!

Keep in mind when hiking in the mountains that whether you’re headed for a short stroll or an overnight excursion, your body is likely to respond different at high altitude than at lower elevations. So move slowly, keep hydrated, eat well, and enjoy yourself you lucky, lucky dog!

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