It’s time for a road trip to Rocky Mountain National Park! The car is packed, the route is mapped, and everyone is excited to head to the mountains! But wait, what are you going to do once you get to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP)?
You’re sure you’ll be able to cruise into the park and spot some wildlife in the meadows. You’ll maybe try to do some hiking? You’ve heard of Long’s Peak before. Maybe that would be fun for the family to hike? Not quite!
You have a lot to keep track of when traveling with kids, so let me take care of the hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park that your family should do. And no, you aren’t going to be hiking anywhere near Long’s Peak. If you need more insider information about what to do in Estes Park and RMNP, read my previous posts about planning three perfect days in Estes Park and my 25 tips for your first visit to RMNP.
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Our family has visited RMNP multiple times and always plan our hikes before we go. Planning ahead is important because of the varying elevations. You don’t want to do the hike at the highest elevation on your very first day. You need to get used to the elevation with an easier hike and then go from there.
This article is going to highlight the easier and moderate hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park that are great for families. I define an easy hike as in any age can do the hike. Moderate hikes are for the kiddo’s ages nine and up. All kids have different abilities, so your own kid may be up for the challenge of a harder hike than you expect.
Our family has done many hikes in the Northern and Central regions of RMNP. I have not hiked in the Southwest region of the park, and do not cover that area of the park.
For a complete hiking guide of Rocky Mountain National Park, I recommend this book and trail map (click photo for details):
The Easiest Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park
Bear Lake – Bear Lake is a very popular lake to walk around. The trail is 8/10’s of a mile long and is fairly flat. The hiking path is wide, a smooth surface and is handicap accessible. Perfect for pushing that stroller on! Plus, the parking lot is within a few hundred feet of the start of the trail.
But the best part of hiking around Bear Lake is the scenery. You’ll be walking in the shadows of Long’s Peak and Hallett Peak. Very impressive to even the youngest member of your family.
The trail around Bear Lake is also a nature trail. This can keep the little ones interested as they learn about the trees, plants and the lake shore.
The trail also has a lot of benches to take a break on and take in the view. There are also some pretty amazing spots for that Christmas card photo.
Since Bear Lake is so popular, it’s also very busy. I recommend hiking this trail before mid morning, or better yet, after dinner.
Sprague Lake – Another popular lake to walk around is Sprague Lake. This trail is 9/10ths of a mile long and has a 10 foot elevation gain. Nice and easy!
The back drop of the trail has you taking in the views of Hallet Peak, Flattop Mountain and Notchtop Mountain. My 11 year old always points out Flattop and declares that someday she’ll hike to the top of it. And she will!
If you take this hike early or late in the day, you have a good chance of spotting some wildlife. On the last couple of trips to Sprague Lake, the elk have babysat our car out in the parking lot. We also have watched two moose walking in the waters of the lake, and there are numerous fish that are easy to spot in the clear water.
I really recommend walking around Sprague Lake in the evening before sunset. It’s very quiet and peaceful (even with little kids).
Alberta Falls – The hike to Alberta Falls is still easy, but it’s 1.6 miles round trip. The elevation gain on this hike is 200 feet, so you will really feel like you are hiking in the mountains. The pathway on this hike isn’t as wide, flat, or smooth as you’ll see on the paths around the lakes. There are steps, narrow spots, and rocks on this trail so wear appropriate footwear.
We see all ages of kids and adults on this hike. It’s a popular hike because of the waterfall and the never-ending view over Glacier Gorge. You can also continue past Alberta Falls to hike to some very picturesque mountain lakes. These hikes are moderate and I’ll mention the hike to Mills Lake below.
The only times we’ve been able to get pictures of Alberta Falls without other people in them are when we go early in the morning. You may be surprised at the amount of people hanging around the waterfall, but it really is a must see.
Short hikes, Tundra hikes – Throughout RMNP there are scenic overlooks, parks and picnic areas that have short hiking trails to walk on. Some that I recommend are Hidden Valley, Alluvial Fan, Moraine Park, and the Tundra Trails near the Alpine Visitor Center at the top of Trail Ridge Road.
Moderate Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park
Old Ute Trail – This tundra hike is the perfect first experience for your family. The hike starts above treeline at 11,800 feet and ends in the trees at an elevation of 10,750 feet. The hike ends at Poudre Lake which is where you can get a cool picture on the Continental Divide. Yes, you can have one foot on each side of the Continental Divide.
This hike, as one-way, is 4.2 miles. It is completely downhill, unless of course, you hike the opposite direction. (My parents hike it uphill, I don’t know why…). Since you end the hike at a different location, you need two cars to make this work for you.
The trail starts at the Alpine Visitor Center, and it’s common to see families just walking a short distance while they are sightseeing along Trail Ridge Road. That way you still can experience some of the hike, although you have to walk uphill back to the Visitor Center.
Bear, Nymph, Dream and Emerald Lakes – This hike takes you by four mountain lakes and is just under 6 miles round trip. The elevation gain is 1040 feet. That sounds difficult, but the terrain is pretty easy to handle. Plus you are stopping quite a bit throughout the hike to take in those lake views.
Just remember, you don’t need to hike the full route. The trail starts at Bear Lake (see above) and it’s only 1/2 mile to Nymph Lake. The trail starts with a long and gradual uphill walk, I hate this part of the hike but the kids don’t seem to mind as they are running ahead of me. Nymph Lake is covered with lily pads during the summer and is very pretty when the flowers are in bloom.
Dream Lake is popular for fishing and you will see people catching some trout. You will also be able to spot the fish in the water right from shore. Dream Lake is 1.1 miles from Bear Lake.
If you make it all the way to Emerald Lake, you’ll be rewarded with an up close view of Hallett Peak. Look closely and you may see some rock climbers. Emerald Lake is 1.8 miles from Bear Lake.
Related Hike – Check out this article by the Just Go Travel Studios blog for details on the Emerald Lake, Lake Haiyaha, and Alberta Falls Trail
Mills Lake – I’ve saved the best for last. Mills Lake is considered the most beautiful lake in the park by many visitors. The hike is 5.6 miles round trip and has an elevation gain of 750 feet.
My oldest daughter did this hike last year, for the first time, when she was a ten year old. She was able to walk the trail with no problems and no complaints.
As I mentioned above, this hike takes you past Alberta Falls and along Glacier Creek. This hike also has you walking along a hillside, over bridges, and deep in the woods. Before you know it, you arrive at the rocky shoreline of Mills Lake.
Allow some time to sit on the boulders, enjoy your snack, and watch the water. You’ll see trout swimming close to shore and plenty of chipmunks begging for your snacks. Don’t leave without feeling how icy cold the water really is. No one will be swimming in this lake!
We also notice a lot of jet traffic overhead at Mills Lake. Your kids will be amazed at how much closer they are to the airplanes flying above.
Of course, Mills Lake is the perfect backdrop for a family photo. There will likely be someone around willing to snap that photo for you.
The hike is popular, but because of the distance, you won’t have near as many people around you. Mills Lake is fairly large and there’s no problem finding a spot on the shoreline that’s away from other hikers.
Before hiking any of the moderate trails, stop at any of the Visitor Centers for more information and maps. The rangers are happy to answer any of your questions and give you updated trail conditions.
Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the best National Parks for hiking. The trails are varied and well taken care of. Your family will be rewarded with some awesome scenery no matter which hikes you choose. You may even spot a few elk along the way!
Planning a trip to Colorado? Here’s more info:
- Click here for a list of lodging available in Estes Park
- How to Have Three Perfect Days in Estes Park
- 10 Foods Your Family Must Eat While in Estes Park
- 25 Tips for your First Visit to Rocky Mountain National Park
- Food Firsts in Denver
- Follow my “Family Travel in Colorado” board on Pinterest