Rocky Mountain National Park: 5 Family-Friendly Hikes

In our family, life in the seventies unfolded to a revolving soundtrack of the Carpenters, Barry Manilow, and Neil Diamond. Some of my earliest memories are of my mom setting the record player needle onto vinyl just so, my dad singing and stomping to “Sweet Caroline.” I’d spend whole afternoons rifling through our album collection, pulling records from sleeves to hand to my mom. I remember one album in particular–a bespectacled, long-haired John Denver on the cover, guitar in hand–a greatest hits compilation. I may not have understood who Annie was or the significance of those country roads, but there was an earnestness to Denver’s voice that moved me even then. Listening to “Rocky Mountain High” with the kids decades later at Rocky Mountain National Park was like traveling back in time, linking past and present. Like coming full circle and going home. Wandering a few miles of RMNP’s trails, those lyrics came alive like never before. Hiking felt like catching a small glimpse of Denver’s heart.              

  1. Bear Lake Loop (0.8 miles)

If you’ve ever visited Bear Lake in late June, then you already know the truth we discovered on Day 3 of Road Trip 2015: the eponymous bear of Bear Lake might have more to do with the challenging parking conditions than any creature of the ursine variety! Still, one glimpse of beautiful Bear Lake was all it took to convince us that parking woes were a small price to pay for such beauty. We jockeyed for a stall at the Bear Lake Park and Ride (our fault for lingering over camp bacon!) and took a free park shuttle to the lake.

With a bevy of lovely trails and showstopping subalpine scenery to enjoy, Bear Lake is one of the most popular regions in RMNP. Crowds are something I prefer to avoid, but Bear Lake is popular for a reason: if ever there was a picture perfect postcard scene, Bear Lake is surely it. Bear Lake Loop follows the circumference of Bear Lake, offering multiple perspectives and viewing angles with an added benefit–the farther we hiked along the loop, the more the crowds diminished. And while you’re never truly alone on this trail, there are plenty of lakeside pockets and clearings to escape to, if only for a minute.

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Bear Lake Park and Ride–even with several hundred stalls, this lot fills by 9 am
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Bear Lake, RMNP
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Bear Lake Loop, 2015
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Bear Lake Loop offers pockets of solitude not generally found at the trailhead
  1. Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake (3.6 miles)

Once back at Bear Lake trailhead, we followed an adjacent trail to Nymph Lake, half a mile away. A short but steady uphill climb didn’t sound so bad on paper, but the unfamiliar altitude (9,400 feet) left us winded. Coming from sea level, we found ourselves headachey and nauseous. Recognizing the effects of altitude, we slowed our pace and hydrated liberally to take the edge off. (Which mostly worked, though we continued to experience headaches the next day, too.) We rested at Nymph Lake for half an hour, journaling and sketching the waterlily-ringed lake before us. While not as clear or vivid as Bear Lake, Nymph Lake had its own Monet-like appeal that made for an interesting watercolor study.

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Taking a break to sketch the scene with watercolors
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Nymph Lake, RMNP 2015
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Photo cred to the hubby for this shot…and most of the shots on this blog, really! 😀

From Nymph Lake, we climbed another half mile to an elevation just shy of 10,000 feet. This portion of the trail remains ingrained in my mind to this day: yellow wildflowers overlooking miles of forest, Longs Peak standing watch in the distance. It was hard to keep from stopping every few seconds; it seemed there was a rushing creek or family of deer vying for our attention around every bend. Perhaps that’s how it was meant to be–RMNP’s way of upping the ante to prepare us for the grandeur of Dream Lake. Framed by snow-capped Hallett Peak, Flattop Mountain and Tyndall Glacier, Dream Lake remains one of the most spectacular sights I’ve ever seen. We lingered on a rocky perch and sketched for the better part of an hour, savoring the view.

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On the way to Dream Lake, Longs Peak in the distance
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Between Nymph Lake and Dream Lake
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This portion of the trail was especially scenic
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We felt like we were getting whiplash–there were beautiful creeks around every bend
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Dream Lake was sublime, especially as seen from our rocky perch away from the crowds
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Dream Lake, RMNP–we sat here for close to an hour just absorbing this beautiful scene

Though we were loath to leave Dream Lake, we still had a mile to go to reach our final destination: Emerald Lake. Climbing through the heart of Tyndall Gorge, we were excited to come upon a family of elk grazing in a meadow. They paid us no heed as we ascended the trail, finally coming to a rocky outcropping signalling the end of the trail and the beginning of Emerald Lake. I wasn’t sure anything could top the magnificence of Dream Lake, but Emerald Lake gave Dream a run for its money with its exquisite jewel-toned hue. We’re lake fans through and through, and this hike came through in a big way, supplying four beautiful subalpine lakes in under four miles. Emerald Lake even delivered an entertaining bonus in the form of a plump marmot who scurried about the rocks, panhandling for food.

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Between Dream Lake and Emerald Lake; loved seeing the mountains and lakes from multiple angles
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Emerald Lake, RMNP–it was challenging to take a photo without being unintentionally photobombed by lakeside visitors
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Emerald Lake (plus unintentional photobombing visitor) 😀
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Loved Emerald Lake’s beautiful jewel-toned hue
  1. Alpine Ridge Trail (0.6 miles)

Day 2 in RMNP dawned ominous and gray. A quick check-in with a park ranger regarding impending thunderstorms confirmed our hunch that hiking 5 miles along open and exposed Mount Ida Trail was probably not the best idea. His recommendation? Hike the half mile trail behind Alpine Visitor Center instead. I have to admit that I secretly pooh-poohed the idea– “Only half a mile?” I thought–but don’t let Alpine Ridge Trail’s short length fool you: ascending 200 feet at an elevation of 12,000 feet in under three tenths of a mile is no joke. Our youngest was seven at the time and had to sit with his head between his knees a long while to recover. He struggled to catch his breath, saying it felt like there was an elephant sitting on his chest.

Here in the alpine tundra, the growing season is short. Wildflowers bloom for six short weeks and plants grow low to the ground, adapting to the harsh winds and temperature extremes of this unforgiving environment. These miniature blooms have found a way to thrive where other organisms perish, and it was a treat to see their vibrant hues dotted against the stark expanse of glaciated greens and purples.

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Alpine Ridge Trail begins behind this Visitor Center
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Climbing toward the sun (or thunder clouds)
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Interpretive signs help with identifying all the different wildflower species
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Looking back at the Visitor Center
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Adventures of Five at 12,005 feet!
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At the top of Trail Ridge Road, fourteeners look like tiny hills
  1. Tundra Communities Trail (1.1 miles)

Located a few miles from the Alpine Visitor Center along Trail Ridge Road, the Tundra Communities Trail traverses alpine tundra and offers tremendous Alpine Ridge Trail views with far fewer crowds. I wish we’d taken pictures of this trail, but we were too busy keeping an eye on the thunderstorm headed our way…and driving ourselves crazy trying to locate the elusive pikas that had us turning circles with their distinctive chirps! We could’ve sworn we heard thousands of them, but spotting these little critters would elude us until Grand Teton National Park a week from now. Still, we loved hiking above the treeline through tundra meadow and especially enjoyed the strange and wonderful mushroom rock formations along the way. Tundra Communities Trail makes for fantastic and worthwhile tundra exploration along Trail Ridge Road.

  1. Hidden Valley Trail (<2 miles)

With thunder clouds rolling in, we were anxious to descend Trail Ridge Road but couldn’t bring ourselves to leave RMNP just yet. As luck would have it, RMNP’s Junior Ranger Headquarters is located at the base of Trail Ridge Road alongside a picturesque picnic area and valley creek. With a pot of lentil soup warming our bellies, we set out to explore Hidden Valley. A short boardwalk looped around the picnic area, branching off into spur trails that led into the mountains. We followed the most obvious of these trails and found ourselves quickly gaining elevation–and just as quickly losing traction along the steep incline. We later learned that this area is an old ski area used for winter tubing, which sounds just about right given the slopes we encountered. Downed trees littered much of the trail ahead of us, so we decided to turn around before things turned sketchy. To be honest, I’m not even sure of the trail’s official name, but exploring Hidden Valley reinforced the old adage that it really is the journey that matters most.

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Main loop around picnic area
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So many wildflowers in Hidden Valley
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Creek view, Hidden Valley
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The yellow wildflowers were especially pretty here
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Hamming it up in Hidden Valley

Back at Jellystone of Estes Park, we’d barely finished 4 holes of miniature golf before thunder crashed across the Rockies, splitting the sky apart in a torrent of rain. I’d used the phrase “lightning bolt” before but had never actually witnessed one until that moment. Watching lightning zig-zag across the sky and strike the ground with an electrifying crackle was a terrifying and awesome thing. The boom of thunder echoing across the Rockies is something I’ll never forget. Safe and sound in our tent, we were so glad we’d heeded the ranger’s advice about Mount Ida!

A short aside about Jellystone of Estes: Though the staff was very welcoming and kind and the kids loved the Yogi Bear Mardi Gras parade, given the price of a tent-only site ($60 per weekend night) and lack of amenities such as a hot tub or pool, we probably wouldn’t stay here again. We’re happy to have tried it and enjoyed our stay, but we’d prefer to camp in RMNP next time.

As always, our time in RMNP was over too soon, but we were grateful to have sampled the sights and serenity that make this park so unique. Heading out of RMNP for South Dakota, we couldn’t help but smile at John Denver’s fitting send-off refrain. 

And the Colorado Rocky Mountain High, I’ve seen it raining fire in the sky.

You can talk to God and listen to the casual reply.

Rocky Mountain High, Colorado.

Also from Road Trip 2015: RMNP Trail Ridge RoadGrand Teton Day 1, Grand Teton Day 2, Badlands National ParkPANO_20150628_101243

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25 thoughts on “Rocky Mountain National Park: 5 Family-Friendly Hikes”

  1. Wow. I think you just made me add several hikes to our must-do list. Gorgeous photos & enticing descriptions 🙂

    We have some of the same musical memories, although mine are without dad singing. Thank goodness :O

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    1. Thanks so much for your kind words, Teresa! The hiking is incredible in RMNP; I only wish we’d had time for more. So funny about the shared musical memories (were you subjected to the Jazz Singer remake, too, lol?). Dad’s singing I didn’t mind so much, but the stomping? That I could’ve done without. 😀

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      1. Yes! I actually *liked* the Jazz Singer! Too funny.

        Most of my dad’s record collection came out of the $1 bin, so there were some oddball things – at least, for that era. But I learned a lot of ’50s tunes and Broadway show numbers 🙂

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  2. All good suggestions for family hikes. Our twin daughters took their first real hike at Bear Lake as toddlers. We kept them interested by encouraging them to find the bear claw signs that mark points of interest along the trail. Now they are beating their mom and me to the top of 14ers.

    But like you said, start early at RMNP, especially if you want to go to Bear Lake. When we’ve taken out-of-town guests there and they ask how early we need to get started I always respond with “how early CAN we get started?” In addition to beating the crowds, the weather is generally better in the mornings, before the almost-daily afternoon thunderstorms roll in.

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    1. Thanks so much for the great tips, JD! We were pretty shocked at how full the parking lot was at 8 am and didn’t expect to have to circle or wait for a shuttle. Hard not to admire how many people were getting out there and hiking, though. Those afternoon thunderstorms are something else! Terrifying to this HI girl, though we were amazed at how quickly the skies cleared after that. Complete 180, like night and day. Love that your girls got their start at Bear Lake! Their skill set must be impressive, hiking in a state like CO. It’s humbling how quickly kids become adept–mine regularly beat me, too!

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  3. Such a beautiful park! The 3.6 mile hike with the three lakes sounds perfect! I love hikes with any kind of water feature and this one has 3! We were in Denver a couple of months ago and to think we were only 1.5 hours away – so close and yet so far! These hikes all seem awesome and your hubby did a great job capturing the incredible views with his photos!! Good tip about getting places early. Your little one was a trooper btw, we didn’t even attempt hikes like that when our daughter was that age. Sounds like you guys had another great family adventure at RMNP!

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    1. Thanks so much, Aya! The Emerald Lake hike was my favorite, too. Slight obsession with lakes–I could do lakes all day! We’ve been known to make the kids move the tent for better lake views, though they aren’t too crazy about that one, lol. I felt pretty bad for our youngest–he kept grabbing his chest and wheezing, which really freaked me out. It’s funny because on Mauna Kea, you can’t pass the 9K mark unless you’re over 16 yo. I always thought it was kind of an extreme rule, but now I get the precaution.

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    1. Thanks so much, Matthew! It must’ve been awesome to see Bear Lake frozen; I’d love to see that someday. I’m totally with you on a return visit. RMNP is one of those places where it feels like we just barely scratched the surface. Here’s hoping we can both hike there again soon!

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  4. Another great post Christine. It made me want to go back to RMNP. I too associate Bear Lake with crowds, lots of them. On the first day we took the shuttle to Bear Lake stop, the sky opened up and dropped cold rain on a warm July day. Everyone (I mean EVERYONE) tried to cram under shelters available at the Bear Lake Trailhead. It’s like NYC subway during rush hours. Then the next shuttles, one after another, sent more people to the shelters. It was crazy but quite fun to experience. After an hour or so the rain stopped and we hiked to Dream Lake. Mt Ida was one of our highlight hikes. I’ll write about it one of these days.

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    1. Thanks so much, Keng! I was so surprised by the crowds, too, especially so early in the morning. I can totally imagine everyone trying to scramble under the shelter from the rain. The shuttles must’ve seemed like clown cars with all those people pouring out and squishing in! I would really, really love to read about your Mt. Ida hike…no pressure, though. 😀 Emerald Lake was amazing, but Mt. Ida was the hike I was looking forward to most. I didn’t expect morning thunderstorms, so I was pretty bummed. So glad you got to do it, though–I bet it was awesome!

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  5. Thanks for the great reminder about summer lightning. Our locals start their “fourteener” hikes in the pre-dawn, to be off the mountain before storms roll in. Oh, and we’re trying Jellystone Larkspur, under new ownership, in early June. I’ll be interested to compare notes!

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    1. Looking forward to reading about your Jellystone stay! We really enjoyed our Estes stay. The owners were wonderful; I think it was the sticker shock that got to us more than anything. It’s a fantastic place for families who linger and take advantage of the amenities. We tend to be sleep-and-go campers, so RMNP ($24?) might’ve been a more practical choice for us. It was a fun experience, though! The kids have great memories of the Yogi Bear parade. 😀 What a fun camping trip for your family–can’t wait to read all about it!

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  6. Oh I love this post and your pictures! It brings back fond memories of our time there last summer. Except for the crowds and limited parking part, lol! You’re not kidding, that part was awful. But the lake views surrounded by mountains are incredible. I think we might have missed Emerald Lake, I don’t remember that one, so I guess we have to go back. 😉 Btw, I also remember my parents playing record albums in the 70s, including the Carpenters and Captain and Tenille. But I love John Denver and when we were visiting RMNP we also listened to his song many times. In fact I love to listen to his music frequently on travel days. 😊

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    1. Thanks so much, Heather! Aww, you’re bringing back great memories for me–my parents loved Captain and Tennille, too. (I’m going to have “Muskrat Love” in my head all day now, lol.) I love that John Denver is on your playlist; we love singing along to his album in the car! We’ve got a bunch of oldies but goodies on ours, too–lots of ABBA and Olivia Newton John. 😀 I hope we can go back to RMNP, too. We loved our time there but feel like we just barely scratched the surface of all there is to do and see. Such a beautiful park!

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  7. I’m just catching up on my reading and this is yet another wonderful post. I love how you’ve creatively tied in your music memories of the 70s (the way you end is just great…I’ll be humming Rocky Mountain High for hours). The distances in these hikes are indeed deceiving. I remember skiing in Utah and I was perplexed about why I was so winded after a couple of turns. Us sea level folks certainly have a bit of a disadvantage in these places.
    Your photos are gorgeous and I am still shaking my head that before your previous post Rocky Mountain NP hadn’t registered with me. Dream Lake and Emerald Lake look particularly appealing, and to think that they are so accessible, wow! As usual, I am impressed that you manage to get your family out hiking so much and that they genuinely enjoy it.
    PS: My folks were big Simon & Garfunkel fans and I still love their music (think this may have been 60s).

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    1. Such kind and lovely remarks–thanks so much, Caroline! I so relate to your altitude experience; the elevation really did a number on us, too. We’re conditioning as a preventative measure for summer, but I’m nervous as our permits have us backpacking early on, before we’ve had time to acclimatize. It’s been good incentive to push harder in workouts, though! You’re a girl after my own heart–Dream Lake was such a stunner. It’s amazing to think that it’s less than 2 miles from the trailhead, too. And how could I have forgotten Simon and Garfunkel?! My folks were fans in the early 70s, though I grew to love them a few decades later during a Joni Mitchell/Carole King phase. 😀 Fun learning the things we have in common!

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  8. I just love your writing style. I can’t read enough about RMNP. I hope to spend a month there someday fly fishing and exploring every inch of that park.

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    1. So kind of you–thanks so much! A month in RMNP sounds like a dream; that would be the ultimate trip for sure. I feel the same way–love reading about different trails and dreaming/planning for a return trip someday. Hope you and your son are able to return for a father-son trek again this year!

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