Hiking Rocky Mountain National Park is an absolutely WONDERFUL experience. It is literally full of wonders.
This park is one of the most well-known and well-traveled National Parks, and with VERY good reason. The lakes, waterfalls, mountains, valleys, wildlife, EVERYTHING in the park is so incredible and so unique to any other place in the country,
To guide you on your adventure, we split up the adventure into 4 amazing days of hiking and exploring the park. In these 4 days, we will take you to the very best places the park has to offer.
We want to note at the outset that these hikes are all day hikes, meaning that we are not planning any overnight camping. If you are like us, you love to hike and get into nature, but keep the limit at under 10 miles per day.
For those who like watching AND reading…
Day 1 – Bierstadt Lake & Sprague Lake
The drive up to Bierstadt Lake and Sprague Lake will take you through a fantastic winding road through the entrance to Rocky Mountain Naitonal Park. On this road, I give you a stamped guarantee that you will see some wildlife.
Every single time we made this drive, we saw at least a few herds of elk and deer, and at times were even treated to a moose or an eagle! We were thinking we might even see a bear one day, but that never came to be. Maybe you will!
Bierstadt Lake is about a 4 mile round-trip hike, about 1 mile and a half to the lake itself then a 1 mile loop around it. There are ways to hike to the lake: the road more traveled and the road less traveled.
The road more traveled, at least in our experience, is from the Bierstadt Lake trailhead parking lot, right off of Bear Lake Road. The road less traveled starts from the far end of the huge park & ride parking lot where the shuttle drops you off.
Note: we were in Rocky Mountain National Park while the shuttle was not running. It is very possible that this is the road more traveled when the shuttle is running.
Either way, both trails are excellent ways to achieve the goal: a morning exploring one of the most stunning lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park: Bierstadt Lake.
Bierstadt Lake now holds a special place in our hearts, because it was the location where Zach saw his first moose! Let’s set the stage.
Zachary Ruhl, a blonde Midwestern boy with humble roots who is scared to pee in the woods at night for fear of wild animals, has never seen the glorious creature known as a moose.
He wishes so badly to be able to see one, and dreams that one day, as he is hiking to a lake, he will look across the calm waters and spot a glourious brown moose. Well, folks, this dream happened to come true, and it was at Bierstadt Lake.
We were hiking the trail to the lake, when we came by a few rather LARGE sets of droppings, too large to be elk. Followed by those droppings were some 2-liter-bottle-sized holes in the know with moose knuckles adorning the bottom. We knew we had to be close…
Upon arriving near the lake, our anxieties made our words disappear, and we crept along in silence. We looked through the trees and glimpsed water with a backdrop of snow-covered mountains, but no moose. Along we crept, until we reached the shores of the water, looking right first: nothing.
Then our eyes turned left, and low-and-behold, a huge furry structure of an animal was having a sip of water on the shores of the lake not 50 yards away. Zach, ever the skittish Yiddish, went from awe-struck to fearful in 2 seconds flat, urging Julie to move further back.
Julie, the brave Polish Powerhouse, strode forward, snapping photos and videos of the glorious creature. After 10 minutes, comfortable that the moose wasn’t bull-rushing, Zach was taking pictures and enjoying the moment, happy that he had seen his very first wild moose.
Sprague Lake is more of a lakeside walk than a hike, but it is a MUST on any trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. Sprague Lake is located very close to both Bierstadt Lake trailheads, so it makes sense to do in succession with that hike.
The walk around the lake itself is easy, and let’s just say that old saying ‘All good things take time’ was not written by someone who had been to Sprague Lake. The Sprague Lake walk is MORE than good, it is breathtaking.
One of the great things about Rocky Mountain National Park is that it offers complete 360 degree panoramic views. There is a wonderful wilderness in every direction.
What does that have to do with Sprague Lake? Well, on your lap of the lake, you’ll get treated to a new view around every single bend in the lake! If you’re lucky, you’ll be at the lake at a time when it is still and reflective, giving you DOUBLE the view that others get on their visits to the lake.
To increase your chances of this reflective experience, head to the lake in the early morning, when it is the calmest. The lake will be the least busy, AND you’ll have the best view. Talk about a win-win!
Day 2 – Dream Lake & Emerald Lake
Before we get started on day 2, a quick option. Day 2 could conceivably be combined with Day 3, Bear Lake and Alberta Falls, if you would like to. These hikes all start out in the same location, at Bear Lake, which is at the very end of Bear Lake Road (fitting…).
We recommend playing it by ear. If you finish Dream Lake and Emerald Lake and are raring for more, then go for it! Hike Alberta Falls and finish the day at Bear Lake. If not, come back the next day!
Dream Lake is located on the hike to Emerald Lake, at just about the halfway point. FYI, there is a lake called Nymph Lake on the route as well, but this one is much less noteworthy than the larger two.
Dream Lake is the most beautiful lake we saw in Rocky Mountain National Park. It was incredible. The lake is surrounded on the back half by enormous snow-covered cliffs with pine forests growing up the mountain side.
On the front half, the Rocky Mountain valley spreads before, with forest and wildlife stretching before you. The lake itself is calm and reflective, giving incredible views from any point around it. All-around, there wasn’t a lake that we enjoyed looking at more than Dream Lake.
Emerald Lake MIGHT be prettier than Dream Lake in the heat of the summer. However, when we saw Emerald Lake it was frozen. This ‘Dream Lake was the prettiest lake we saw’ business might be considered cheating, because a few lakes we hiked to were still frozen over. Emerald Lake was one of those lakes.
Now, this lake was STILL beautiful, even covered in ice. The backdrop of mountain cliffs is very similar to that of Dream Lake, only at Emerald Lake the mountains loom larger. The view of the valley is incredible as well.
We found that we could still have fun in the snow, having a snowball fight on the banks of the lake…Julie won! For those curious, here is a picture of what Emerald Lake looks like in the summer. Incredible, isn’t it?
Now, there is one thing that makes the Emerald Lake hike better in the snow: the hike down. Or should I say, the slide down. Hiking down is a bit like skiing down a hill in your boots!
Yes, at times you may fall on your butt, or (hopefully not) your pretty face. But it is SO much fun slipping and sliding down the trails! And if you don’t find that fun? Just pack a snowball together and throw it at your hiking partner.
Day 3 – Bear Lake, Alberta Falls & Moraine Park
Whether you combined Day 2 and Day 3 or kept them separate, you are going to have a BLAST taking on Bear Lake, Alberta Falls, and Moraine Park.
These are 3 VERY different but uniquely fantastic adventures within Rocky Mountain National Park. If there was 1 day that fully captured the essence of this national park, day 3 is it!
Bear Lake is actually located right near the trailhead for Dream Lake, Emerald Lake, and Alberta Falls. Therefore, feel free to do them in any order you please! But whatever you do, you MUST make a stop at Bear Lake.
It’ll be the easiest stop on the adventure, except for maybe Sprague Lake, and you will thank yourself for making the trip. Like most lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park, the best part of the view, at least in my opinion, is the backdrop of the snow-covered peaks.
The lake itself is much bigger than Dream Lake and Emerald Lake, and is at a lower altitude, so it will melt earlier in the season. That makes it one of the best first places to visit in all of Rocky Mountain National Park!
Located a little over a mile from Bear Lake, Alberta Falls is unique from ANY OTHER of the hikes on our 4 day adventure hiking the Rockies. How so? Well, it is the only huge waterfall on the adventure!
And boy oh boy is it a good one. An enormous, cascading waterfall through the forest, rolling over giant boulders as it powers its way down the mountain. Alberta Falls is a great place to have a picnic or coffee, depending the time of day (or maybe not if you’re like us and drink coffee nonstop…).
Why is this a perfect rest stop? Because there is not many things more peaceful that enjoying a meal in the midst of a beautiful nature scene with the sound of rushing water in the background.
We could have sat for hours listening to the water rush past us, but there was more on the day’s docket in terms of adventure!
You will notice Moraine Park shows up on this agenda twice, in Days 3 and 4, and with good reason. Moraine Park is FREAKING HUGE! There is no way to see it all in one day, unless that is the only thing you do that day.
On Day 4, we will be adventuring deep into the park, so on Day 3 the best thing to do is to explore the front parts of the park. There will undoubtedly be elk, deer, and maybe even a few moose in the park, so our recommendation is to explore those areas. Of course, please always keep a safe distance from the wildlife.
If you didn’t have a picnic at Alberta Falls, Moraine Park is DEFINITELY the place to have it! The park offer tons of picnic areas in an ENORMOUS valley surrounded on all sides by colorful Colorado landscapes. There aren’t many more beautiful parks on Planet Earth…
Day 4 – Fern Lake, Cub Lake, Moraine Park
For Day 4, we are going to be taking a large loop, and on the way making stops at Fern Lake and Cub Lake, finishing the loop with a stroll through Moraine Park.
Now, this day could very easily be split into 2 days, with the Fern Lake hike and Cub Lake hike taking place on separate days. Why did we put them together? We are HUGE fans of loop trails, versus out-and-back trails.
With a loop trail, every step from start to finish is new and unique, so we find them when we can. The Fern Lake and Cub Lake Trails by themselves are out-and-back trails, however there is a trail between them, so it is possible to make a loop where you see both of them! And as a bonus, you get the beautiful stroll through Moraine Park to finish it off.
This is going to seem counter-intuitive, but if you are doing our recommended loop, you are going to park at the Cub Lake Trailhead. I say again, the CUB LAKE TRAILHEAD.
Why not start at Fern Lake Trailhead? Because Cub Lake Trailhead is where our loop ends, and that’s where we need the car.
Now, you will have to start the loop with a walk from the Cub Lake Trailhead to the Fern Lake Trailhead, which is not ideal but it is necessary to keep the loop alive!
Once you start seeing the sites, you’ll be glad you did! Fern Lake itself is 3.8 miles from the Fern Lake trailhead, but you can take it as fast or slow as you care to.
And even better? Along the way is Fern Falls, a cascading waterfalls flowing almost as powerfully as Alberta Falls. Once you reach the top, you’ll be treated to another absolutely stupendous view of a lake surrounded by the good ol’ Rocky Mountains. You never get sick of these views, people, trust me.
On the way back from Fern Lake, after seeing Fern Falls one more glorious time, there will be a turn for you to follow the trail to Cub Lake.
Take this turn, and not too long after, you’ll come across Cub Lake. Now, we ourselves did not spot any moose here at Cub Lake, however we heard from at LEAST 4 or 5 people who went to Cub Lake on previous days who did see a moose hanging out.
We must have went on the day that moose was intermittent fasting or something, because we didn’t find them. However, that shouldn’t take away from Cub Lake itself, because the lake was incredible.
Cub Lake was the bluest lake we saw without a doubt. Not sure why it was bluer than the other lakes, but it absolutely was. We walked from one end of the lake to the other, spending 20 minutes or so at each side just taking in the sites and the sounds of our final lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.
However, as all good things must come to an end, we packed up and left Cub Lake, because we still had one more item on the agenda for the day.
On the return hike from Cub Lake on our loop, or the hike towards Cub Lake from the Cub Lake Trailhead if you chose that route, the trail takes a winding road through the heart of Moraine Park.
We saw 57 (Julie counted…) elk on this trail! FIFTY SEVEN! It was SO awesome to see so much wildlife, especially after living in Chicago for 2 years where the best wildlife you see (other than puppies) is a pigeon munching on a half-eaten discarded beef sandwich.
Moraine park was the best place for wildlife in all of Rocky Mountain National Park, and that is a HUGE reason that we have it on the agenda twice. It is also a great reason to end your Rocky Mountain National Park adventure here, since one of the best lasting memories you’ll have is the wildlife you saw.
We know our favorite memories will be the moose and elk we saw roaming this incredible land, and we hope those will be your favorites as well.
Where We Camped – Lily Lake
Not too far outside Estes Park, Colorado is Lily Lake. Across the highway from Lily Lake is a parking lot that is essentially unmarked, and one that us (and a few other vans) camped at for the duration of our stay in Rocky Mountain National Park.
We learned about this site through iOverlander, and had a wonderful time using this site as our home base for the week. The best part was without a doubt the sunsets over the lake, coloring the sky orange and pink and calming the lake such that everything above was reflected below.
Coming in second on the list of best things about Lily Lake? The mornings. We started every morning with coffee and a walk around the lake, less than a mile and a beautiful way to begin each day.
Bonus Hike – Lily Mountain
Not far from Lily Lake, just a quarter mile or so down the road. Is the trailhead for Lily Mountain. Lily Mountain is a hike that should be mandatory for everyone visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, for a few reasons.
- First, it is not too difficult of a hike, about 2 miles each way.
- Second, the top offers a breath-taking 360 degree panorama of the Rocky Mountains and surrounding valley. WE aren’t kidding, there is not 1 direction that you can look from the top and not be astounded by the view.
- Third, dogs. Puppies. Canines. Bow-wowwers. Puppers. Bark Machines. Man’s Best Friend. Cat’s Worst Enemy. Hounds. You can bring your dogs!
If we have one complaint about National Park rules, it is the no dogs policy. However, Lily Mountain is just outside the National Park boundary, and dogs are allowed, encouraged even, to go on the hike! Our chihuahua, Kobe, made the trip, so there are no excuses for your own pup.
There you have it. What an incredible 4 day adventure in Rocky Mountain National Park! We had an all-around BLAST hiking the lakes, mountains, valleys, and waterfalls in the Rockies, and we are one hundred percent convinced that you will too!
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