I recently had the opportunity to spend five days in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) with my family and friends. I consider RMNP to be one of the unsung jewels of the National Park Service portfolio–it is large, easy to access, and offers a variety of opportunities for hiking, touring, and viewing wildlife. This was my third visit to RMNP, but the first that I primarily spent time on the western side of the park at Grand Lake. Most RMNP visitors, upwards of 90%, make their base on the eastern boundary, Estes Park, and focus on the extensive offerings nearby.
There were a few smaller/shorter jaunts, but below were the five measurable hikes that we completed enjoyed on our vacation.
Day 1: Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes (from Bear Lake Trailhead)
I will start by saying that this is one of my favorite hikes, anywhere, and this was my third time on this trail. It is a relatively easy 3.6 mile hike with a 600+ foot elevation gain, starting at 9475 feet. The trail is relatively easy to negotiate (sneakers or active sandals will suffice), and the payoff is the extraordinary chain of alpine lakes (Nymph, Dream, and Emerald). It is a great hike for families and as one of the signature destinations of RMNP, can be quite busy. In fact, the day we visited, there were multiple postings that the parking lots were all full (blah, blah, blah), but we persisted and scored a parking spot at the trailhead. This is a great destination, too, if you can get out really early, but even mid-day, with maximum visitors on the trail, it never seemed too crowded. One last thing is that if you have a free day in Denver and want to have a classic national park experience, it is only a two hour drive.
Day 2: Big Meadows (from Green Mountain Trailhead)
This is another 3.6 mile, very family friendly hike, and like the rest of the hikes I will discuss here, is centered on the western side of RMNP. It is relatively easy, again with about a 600 foot elevation gain, and is mostly shaded and through the woods. The payoff is a very large meadow (hence the name), where once was an alpine lake over 100 years ago but has since dried. There are a couple of old settlers’ cabins to explore. While you will probably not see a whole lot of people, you might see a moose, and we did in the first part of the trail.
Day 3: Spirit Lake (from the East Inlet Trailhead)
This was my big hike for the trip, a 16 mile roundtrip with a 1900 foot elevation gain. Along the way, you pass Adams Falls (very early, 0.3 miles), Lone Pine Lake, Lake Verna, and ultimately Spirit Lake. (There are two more lakes further out, unimaginatively named the fourth and fifth lakes, for those who have sturdier knees than me!) The trail is well-maintained and marked through Lake Verna, beyond which navigation is a little tricker. This was a fun, exhilarating, and somewhat daunting pursuit, and I might have turned back at Lake Verna (6.9 miles out) had I not been nudged further by my friend. No, this is not a recommended family hike, unless you want to listen to a LOT of complaining. For a shorter option, check out Lone Pine Lake (at 5.4 miles out). Arriving at Spirit Lake, I could not help but think of how few people will make it to this beautiful place. Highly recommended to do with a friend or spouse who wants a challenge.
Day 4: Lulu City (from the Colorado River Trailhead)
This was the only day that the two families hiked together, four adults, and five kids, ranging from 12 through 17 in age. It is a 7.2 mile roundtrip that is mostly flat and wooded. Along the way, there are ruins of a settler’s cabin and an old mining cart, but at the actual site of the once, briefly booming mine town, there is nothing remaining to indicate that people once lived here. You do have the opportunity to splash around in the Colorado River where it is just a stream, and that’s pretty cool.
Day 5: Cascade Falls (from the North Inlet Trailhead)
Once again, the two guys got up and out early and hiked this 6.8 mile roundtrip to a very pleasant waterfall, in about 2 1/2 hours. We saw a large bull moose, very close to the trail and very close to the trailhead. The payoff, the Cascade Falls, were indeed lovely, and with our early start, we had them to ourselves. In retrospect, this would have been more fun for the two families, in lieu of the Lulu City trail–everyone loves a waterfall!
Five great days, five great hikes in RMNP!