Top 3 Short Day Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park


Rocky Mountain National Park is one of our favorite National Parks. It offers endless scenic hiking with plenty of wildlife viewing opportunities. We spent a week exploring Rocky Mountain National Park but you could easily spend two weeks here and not get bored. 

Below is the list of the top three short hikes we recommend hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park.

For more Rocky Mountain National Parks hiking tips, please see Top 5 Long Day Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park and The Perfect One Week Itinerary for Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links. That means that, at no cost to you, we may get a small commission if you purchase through these links. This helps us keep providing travel resources for you!


1. Emerald Lake

3.6 Miles, 708 feet of Elevation Gain, Out & Back

Emerald Lake Hike

This short hike offers the most reward for your effort with unbeatable views.  On this hike, you will come across 3 different, beautiful lakes: Nymph Lake, Dream Lake and Emerald Lake.  All 3 have picturesque mountains as the backdrop. The best view is at Emerald Lake but Dream Lake is a close second. If you only do one hike in Rocky Mountain National Park, do this one! 

Dream Lake (left), Emerald Lake (right)

Tip: Either hike this trail very early in the morning or later in the afternoon. It tends to be very crowded  because it offers you the best views for the least amount of effort.  Per the Rocky Mountain National Park Rangers we spoke with at the park, the parking lot where this trail starts, Bear Lake, tends to fill up by 8am.  We arrived around 3pm on a Friday in late June and had no trouble parking because most of the morning hikers had finished by then.  Surprisingly, we had the trail mostly to ourselves. 

If the parking lot is full, there is a shuttle you can take to the parking lot from a park and ride within the park but expect the trail to be busy at that time.  We also recommend this as a first hike in Rocky Mountain National Park, especially if you are not acclimated to the elevation (like us), as it is relatively short and with low elevation gain.  

Emerald Lake Trail in Dark Blue

Looking for great hiking boots?  Here are links to the ones we’ve used for 6+ years and highly recommend: Men’s Keen Waterproof Hiking Boots & Women’s Keen Waterproof Hiking Boots


2. Mills Lake

5.6 Miles Round Trip from Glacier Gorge Trailhead, 750 feet of Elevation Gain, Out & Back OR 5.8 Miles Round Trip from Bear Lake Trailhead, 938 feet of Elevation Gain, Out & Back

Mills Lake Hike

This trail will take you past the stunning Alberta Falls before taking you to the serene Mills Lake.  The hike is fast paced and you will be at Mills Lake before you know it.  We only saw two people while at the lake, making it feel very secluded, and we even spotted two Elk across the lake, making our hike here extra special. 

Tip: This trail can be accessed from either the Glacier Gorge Trailhead or Bear Lake Trailhead.  Leaving from Bear Lake adds 0.2 Miles Round Trip and almost 200 feet of Elevation Gain but the Bear Lake Parking lot is much bigger, allowing you to start a little later.  We arrived at Rocky Mountain National Park by 6:15am and by that time, the small parking lot at Glacier Gorge Trailhead was already completely full.  We hiked this trail in combination with a longer trail, Sky Pond, as it only added 1.2 miles round trip to that hike.  See The Perfect One Week Itinerary for Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park for more details.

Trail to Mills Lake in Purple, Can add onto Sky Pond Hike

3. Bierstadt Lake

3.2 Miles Round Trip from Bierstadt Trailhead/Parking Lot, 626 feet of Elevation Gain, Out & Back

Bierstadt Lake Hike

This trail truly exceeded our expectations.  We were not impressed with the pictures we saw of the lake and trail online but decided to try the trail out as we had a free morning.  To our delight, this lake was GORGEOUS.  On the lake, you could see all the major mountains in the park reflected perfectly.  Had the water not been so still or the lighting not so perfect, we may not have seen the lake in this tranquil state.

Tip: We recommend planning to arrive at the lake between 7am-8am, if you are visiting in June or July, and on a still day in order to get the magical mountain views reflecting on the lake.

Bierstadt Lake Trail Map

We hope this blog post helps you plan your next hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. 

For more Rocky Mountain National Parks hiking tips please see Top 5 Long Day Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park and The Perfect One Week Itinerary for Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park.  Please also see Rocky Mountain National Park Website.

Any other hikes you would add to our list?  We would love to hear your feedback and questions.  Please leave us a comment!

And remember, Always Have A Trip Planned!

Top 5 Long Day Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park


Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the best national parks for hiking with scenic views and wildlife sighting opportunities.  We spent one week exploring Rocky Mountain National Park, but you could easily spend two weeks there.  Here is the list of our top five long hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park.

For more Rocky Mountain National Parks hiking tips please see Top 3 Short Day Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park and The Perfect One Week Itinerary for Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park blog posts. 

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links. That means that, at no cost to you, we may get a small commission if you purchase through these links. This helps us keep providing travel resources for you!


1. Sky Pond

8.2 Miles from Glacier Gorge Trailhead, 1,765 feet of Elevation Gain, Out & Back OR 8.4 Miles if you start from Bear Lake Trailhead, Out & Back OR 10 Miles when combined with Mills Lake, Out & Back

Sky Pond
Mills Lake (left), Sky Pond (center) and Loch Lake (right)

This hike offers stunning views at nearly every turn along the trail.  On this hike, you will see plenty of picturesque views including the powerful Alberta Falls, the gorgeous Loch Lake, the beautiful Lake of Glass and lastly the tucked away Sky Pond. To get to Sky Pond, you climb up through a waterfall and scramble for a short distance.  If you only plan to do one long hike in Rocky Mountain National Park, do this one!  Consider adding on hiking to Mills Lake (only adds 1.6 miles Round Trip total) like we did.  See Top 3 Short Day Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park and The Perfect One Week Itinerary for Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park for more information about adding on Mills Lake. 

Views on the trail leading to Sky Pond

Tip: Pack many layers and consider bringing hiking poles and/or crampons.  Throughout our hike, we went from wearing a T-shirt to wearing as many layers as possible (T-shirt + fleece + micropuff fleece + raincoat).  The temperature varied between 40 degrees to 78 degrees depending on where we were and what time it was during the day.  Near the top on this hike, we had to cross some snowfields.  Our hiking boots were sufficient to cross them, cautiously, but they were very icy in some spots. Poles and/or crampons would have been helpful.  Be prepared to do some scrambling at the waterfall after the Loch and before Lake of Glass. 

Combined Mills Lake & Sky Pond Hike in Purple

Looking for great hiking boots?  Here are links to the ones we’ve used for 6+ years and highly recommend: Men’s Keen Waterproof Hiking Boots & Women’s Keen Waterproof Hiking Boots


2. Chasm Lake

8.4 Miles from Longs Peak Trailhead, 2,500 feet of Elevation Gain, Out & Back

Chasm Lake
Views Hiking to Chasm Lake

This hike offers pristine alpine tundra views, helping differentiate from mountain views on other hikes we completed.  Although this hike is nearly all uphill on the hike out, we found the views to be well worth the effort.  Once above the treeline, you get clear views of Longs Peak, giving you greater appreciation for its size than you experience seeing it at other areas of the park.  This hike was definitely a highlight of our time in Rocky Mountain National Park.  

Chasm Lake

Tip: Arrive here early so you can reach your summit, Chasm Lake, and be back below the treeline (about 2.5 miles back from the end of the hike) before noon.  You are at higher risk of getting struck by lightning after noon.  We started this hike just before 6am and completed it by 11am.  

Map to Chasm Lake Hike

3. Cub Lake/Fern Lake/Odessa Lake Loop

12.6 Miles, 2,500 feet of Elevation Gain, Loop/Out & Back

Odessa Lake
Praire Views heading to Cub Lake (left), Fern Lake (middle) and Views from Cub Lake to Fern Lake (right)

This is a modified hiking route that encompasses 3 hiking trails in Rocky Mountain National Park.  This hike, although long, was fast paced because every section of the hike felt quite different.  We started this hike at the Cub Lake Trailhead and the scenery was very open before reaching Cub Lake. Once at Cub Lake, we learned why it is well-known for its beautiful lily pads.  After Cub Lake, you descend along the south of the Big Thompson River to the roaring Pool.  From the Pool, you climb to Fern falls.  By climbing about a mile further, you reach the peaceful Fern Lake and then it is less than a mile more before you reach the pristine Odessa Lake.  

Fern Lake

Tip: Do this trail as a loop.  You have the option to do out & back hikes to all 3 lakes but you get to see a lot more by completing it as a loop.  You do have to walk for about a mile on the unpaved road from the Fern Lake Trailhead to the Cub Lake Trailhead but it is an easy flat walk at the end of a long hike (this mile is included in total mileage of 12.6 miles). 

Cub Lake/Fern Lake/Odessa Lake Loop

4. Lion Lake

12.6-14 Miles, depending on your route from Wild Basin Trailhead, 3,031 feet of Elevation Gain, Out & Back

Lion Lake
View right before reaching Lion Lake

The end point of the trail, Lion Lake, continues to confirm the wonder of Rocky Mountain National Park.  This trail would be ranked higher on our list but there is not a lot to see along this trail and it requires a lot of effort to get to Lion Lake. We added 0.7 miles to our route out to the lake to see Ozuel Falls and break up the hike a bit more. 

View on the hike to Lion Lake near mile 4.5

Tip: Don’t underestimate the challenge of this hike.  The last 2.2 miles of this trail is where you gain the most elevation. It took us almost as long to hike the last 2.2 miles as it took to do the first 5 miles.  We found it very challenging to steeply climb at an elevation of over 11,000 feet, despite being in pretty good shape.  Wisconsin’s lack of mountains, and plethora of dairy products, did not make our mountain climb any easier. 

Lion Lake Trail starts at Wild Basin Trailhead (southeast end of the park)

5. Onahu/Green Mountain Loop to Big Meadows

7.6 miles, 1,300 feet of Elevation Gain, Loop

Big Medows
Views on/to the Onahu Trail

This hike makes our top 5 list because it is very different from the other four on this list. This hike is located on the west side of the park, near the Grand Lake entrance. We saw less than 5 people in total on the trail.  This hike leads to a large meadow, aptly named Big Meadows, where you typically will see elk or moose from afar.  Although we did not see any wildlife in Big Meadows on the day we hiked, we saw 4 moose (2 males, 1 female and 1 calf) and countless Elk (male and female) while driving to this trailhead, making it extra special.  You can also complete this hike as an out and back trail from both the Onahu Trailhead or the Green Mountain Trailhead (more busy of the two) .  Again, we encourage you to hike this trail as a loop to see more variety. 

Onahu/Green Mountain Trail

We hope this blog post helps you plan your next hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. 

For more Rocky Mountain National Parks hiking tips please see Top 3 Short Day Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park and The Perfect One Week Itinerary for Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park.  Please also see Rocky Mountain National Park Website for more Rocky Mountain National Park hiking information.

Any other hikes you would add to our list?  We would love to hear your feedback and questions.  Please send us leave us a comment!

And remember, Always Have A Trip Planned!

The Perfect One Week Itinerary for Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park


Views while Hiking to Lion Lake

Rocky Mountain National Park is one of our favorite national parks. It offers some of the most scenic hiking and some of the best wildlife sighting opportunities in the continental United States.  We spent one week exploring Rocky Mountain National Park, which we felt was the perfect amount of time to hike a majority of the trails.   


Caveats:

  • You will hike close to 70 miles in 1 week following this plan – come in-shape!
  • Set-up well for early risers

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links. That means that, at no cost to you, we may get a small commission if you purchase through these links. This helps us keep providing travel resources for you!


Here is our perfect one week itinerary for hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park: 

Day 1: Arrive, Hike Emerald Lake

Emerald Lake

On your first day, try to arrive early and settle into your accommodations before heading into Rocky Mountain National Park for a short hike.  After flying into Denver on an early morning flight, we started our drive to Rocky Mountain National Park (about 90 minutes from Denver International Airport). We stopped along the way in Boulder.  We ate Brunch at The Buff in Boulder and would highly recommend it. Sam got the Huevos Rancheros and Natalie got the Veggie Omelet with killer breakfast potatoes–both excellent. 

The Buff in Boulder

See 5 Ways to Save on Flights to help save on your flight into Denver!


Stay in Estes Park

Our Cabin in Estes Park, right outside of Rocky Mountain National Park.

After this delicious meal, we drove to the cabin we rented in Estes Park, less than 10 minutes from the Beaver Meadows Entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park.  We highly recommend staying in the Estes Park area as it is very close to the Beaver Meadows Entrance, the most popular park entrance.  This location was very convenient for exploring the park, as most of the trailheads are located near this entrance. This close proximity to the park helped limit required driving once we settled into our cabin. 

The adorable cabin we rented was tucked away in a quiet neighborhood in Estes Park.  We advise you book accommodations away from downtown Estes Park. The downtown area can be very busy and touristy (similar to the Wisconsin Dells or Gatlinburg), making it less than ideal for relaxing.  We had a full kitchen and grill at our cabin and planned to pack/cook most of our own meals for the trip.  With a short drive into the main town area, we went grocery shopping at the Estes Park Safeway to stock up.

Use this link to get up to $65 off your first Airbnb

Link to our Cabin in Estes Park


Hike Emerald Lake

Dream Lake (left) seen on the way to Emerald Lake (left)

After settling into our cabin, we headed into the park around 3pm.  We were happy to find parking at the Bear Lake Parking Lot in order to hike the iconic Emerald Lake Trail.  The Emerald Lake Trail is a classic Rocky Mountain National Park hike (3.6 Miles, 708 feet of Elevation Gain, Out & Back) that leads to three absolutely stunning lake/mountain views.  This hike is fast paced and with being relatively short, it is a great first hike in Rocky Mountain National Park, especially if you are still adjusting to the elevation like we were on day one.  This trail is best to hike either early in the morning or later in the afternoon (after the morning hikers have left).  Please see Top 3 Short Day Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park for more information on the Emerald Lake Trail. 

You can also take an easy stroll around Bear Lake (0.5 miles, Negligible Elevation Gain, Loop) before or after this hike as it is also located at the same trailhead.  However, be prepared for this lake to be busy as it is very accessible to all skill levels (we opted to see this lake another day early in the morning because it was very busy in the afternoon).  After hiking Emerald Lake, we headed back to our cabin to cook dinner and relax.


Looking for great hiking boots?  Here are links to the ones we’ve used for 6+ years and highly recommend: Men’s Keen Waterproof Hiking Boots & Women’s Keen Waterproof Hiking Boots


Day 2: Hike Sky Pond with Lake Mills Add on

Sky Pond

After getting some rest from a busy day of traveling, we arrived in the park early on day 2, a little after 6am, to hike the picturesque Sky Pond.  This hike (8.2 Miles from Glacier Gorge Trailhead, 1,765 feet of Elevation Gain, Out & Back) offers diverse lake, mountain and waterfall views nearly every mile along the trail.  The Sky Pond hike in Rocky Mountain National Park is technically challenging, requiring crossing some icy snowfields (depending on time of year visiting) and scrambling through a waterfall. However, this hike is definitely a must-do for anyone visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in relatively good shape. 

We also added on a short 1.2 Mile Round Trip detour to the picturesque Mills Lake.  Please see Top 5 Long Day Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park for more information on this trail.  This hike took us about 6 hours to complete with breaks. We were very happy to kick up our feet and relax at the cabin after this challenging yet stunning hike.  


Day 3: Hike Cub Lake/Fern Lake/Odessa Lake Loop

Fern Lake

On day 3, we got another early start, heading into the park before 6am (we really benefited from gaining an hour with our central-time zone change).  This early bird time is truly the best hour in the park as you may be the only one on the trails.  We started our Cub Lake/Fern Lake/Odessa Lake Loop at the Cub Lake Trailhead.  The morning was crisp and peaceful. We saw several Elk as we drove to the Trailhead in the park.  This hike (12.6 Miles, 2,500 feet of Elevation Gain, Loop/Out & Back) was, to our surprise, was one of our favorites in Rocky Mountain National Park.  It felt very different along each section of the hike and afforded us very contrasting views. 

Odessa Lake

This trail has it all–open areas, heavy tree coverage, waterfalls, the Big Thompson River, large boulders and gorgeous lakes.   Please see Top 5 Long Day Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park for more information on this trail.  This hike took us about 6 hours with breaks and we enjoyed relaxing on the cabin porch the rest of the day.  

Porch View at our Airbnb

Day 4: Drive Trail Ridge Road and Hike Onahu/Green Mountain Loop to Big Meadows

Views Driving on the Trail Ridge Road

This day we drove the winding and elevated Trail Ridge Road, crossing the continental divide, to the Onahu Trailhead (about 90 minute drive from Estes Park).  Along the way, we stopped at different lookouts points and drove to over 12,000 feet of elevation. The views along this road are unparalleled and this drive is a highlight to visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. 

Wildlife and Hiking Views

While driving this road, before reaching the Onahu Trailhead, we saw 4 moose (2 males, 1 female and 1 calf), countless elk (male and female) and two marmots.  Once at the trail (7.6 miles, 1,300 feet of Elevation Gain, Loop),  we did not see anyone for the first 4 miles.  This side of the park (near Grand Lake entrance) tends to be much less busy than the Estes Park side.  Please see Top 5 Long Day Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park for more information on this trail.  

Big Medows on the Onahu/Green Mountain Trail

Tip: Drive the Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park as early as possible to avoid traffic and see more wildlife.  Due to construction, the road was closed until 7am everyday while we were visiting Rocky Mountain National Park but we were some of the first people on it at 7am, likely contributing to our numerous wildlife sightings.  Driving back in the afternoon, the road was much busier and we were glad we had made our stops at the lookouts in the morning as it was more difficult to pull off along the road with the afternoon traffic.   


Day 5: Hike Lion Lake

Lion Lake

Day 5 was another early day, as we arrived at the Wild Basin Trailhead before 6am.  With about 14 miles of hiking ahead of us, to the very idyllic Lion Lake (12.6-14 Miles, depending on your route from Wild Basin Trailhead, 3,031 feet of Elevation Gain, Out & Back), we made sure to get an early start to our hike in order to summit the lake prior to potential afternoon storms. 

Calypso Cascade (left), Views Hiking to Lion Lake (center), Lion Lake (right)

Lion Lake was one of the most peaceful and serene places we visited in Rocky Mountain National Park.  This was one of the more challenging hikes we did, due to the length and elevation gain. However, we both agree that the difficult climb was very worth it.  There is not a lot to see along the trail to Lion Lake but you can add on a short 0.7 miles to see Ozuel falls to break up the hike a bit more.  If you are feeling ambitious, you also can hike further to Trio Falls and Lion Lake #2 but we opted not to do this as we were already feeling the elevation at the first Lion Lake. 

View just before reaching Lion Lake

This hike took us about 7.5 hours to complete (fortunate timing, it started to rain the moment we got into the car after finishing the hike) and we enjoyed some well earned relaxation after this hike at the cabin.  Please see Top 5 Long Day Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park for more information on this trail.  Some other options for a longer hike, with slightly less elevation gain, for this day would be Thunder Lake or Finch/Pear Lake (we have not hiked either but the pictures of both are beautiful).  


Day 6: Visit Bear Lake, Hike Bierstadt Lake & Hike Lulu City Trail

Bear Lake in the morning

This morning we entered the park again before 6am. We headed to the end of Bear Lake Road to see Bear Lake without the crowds. This lake is a very short walk from the parking lot and accessible to all skill levels.


Hike Bierstadt Lake

Bierstadt Lake

We then drove back to the Bierstadt Lake trailhead on Bear Lake Road. This trailhead has about 10 parking spots, and we were the first one to park there this day.  We had not originally planned to hike this trail. We had planned to hike Emerald Lake this day, but since we ended up hiking that trail the first day, we had time for this hike.  To our delight, we were thrilled we did this hike.  This relatively short hike (3.2 Miles Round Trip from Bierstadt Trailhead/Parking Lot, 626 feet of Elevation Gain, Out & Back) offers some beautiful mountain views on the steep climb up before reaching Bierstadt Lake. 

Bierstadt Lake is one of the most peaceful lakes we have ever visited.  The morning we visited, the mountains were magically reflected on the extremely still lake.  This hike took us about 1.5 hours with breaks.  See Top 3 Short Day Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park for more information on this hike. 


Hike Lulu City Trail

Lulu City Site

After being pleasantly surprised with hiking to Bierstadt Lake and getting our morning fill of serenity, we headed back to the cabin to eat breakfast before heading to the other side of the park to hike to Lulu City (about 60 minutes from Estes Park).  The Lulu City hike starts at the Colorado River Trailhead.  This trail leads to the very minimal remains of Lulu City, a mining town that existed from 1879-1884.  This trail is very tranquil, relatively easy and fast paced (7.4 Miles, 725 feet of elevation gain, out & back).  We enjoyed our stroll to Lulu City but do not expect to find remains of the city here other than some minimal cabin remains.  This hike took us about 3 hours including relaxing at Lulu city for about 30 minutes. 

Another option for this day or afternoon would be to do a full or partial white water rafting trip (Highly Rated White Water Rafting in Estes Park) or to go fly fishing (Highly Rated Fly Fishing Outfitter in Estes Park).

After finishing this hike, we enjoyed grilling out at our cabin. 


Day 7: Hike Chasm Lake, leave late tonight or the next day

Chasm Lake

This day we had another early start to our climb to the gorgeous Chasm Lake.  This hike was challenging, with a steep and continuous elevation gain on the way out to Chasm Lake.  The barron alpine tundra views on this hike vastly contrasted the other hikes we completed on this trip.  Chasm Lake is not a hike to miss while visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. This trail took us about 5 hours to complete with breaks. 

Please see Top 5 Long Day Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park for more information on this trail.  After completing this hike, we grilled out and relaxed on the porch before preparing to leave the next day.  You could alternatively leave late this evening but leaving the next morning is certainly more relaxing (which is what we opted to do).  

Views leading to Chasm Lake

We hope this itinerary helps you plan a hiking trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. 

For more information on hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, please see Top 5 Long Day Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park and Top 3 Short Day Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park.  Please also see Rocky Mountain National Park Website for more information on this park.

Anything you would add to our itinerary? We would love to hear your feedback and questions. Please leave us a comment.

And remember, Always Have A Trip Planned!