The Best Rocky Mountain National Park Day Hikes for All Seasons

 In Colorado, Hikes

RMNP is jaw-dropping place to hike, but it’s a total shit show in the busy season. To fully appreciate its awesomeness, I recommend hiking in the colder months, when you won’t be troubled by tourists trampling the tundra and feeding Cheetos to chipmunks. So let’s look at some Rocky Mountain National Park day hikes that are amazing all year round.

RMNP Day Hiking Month by Month

First, a few words about seasons up here.

If you’re coming from the lowlands, understand that seasons in the high country are completely different. (Like Barack Obama to Donald Trump kind of different.) So if you show up in August in Daisy Dukes, your ass may quite literally freeze.

Also, the timing of the seasons is a little different every year. So use the following information as a rough guide only. Before hiking, always check the weather forecast, trail alerts, and the park webcams for the latest conditions.

January, February (deep winter)

This is a beautiful, quiet time to visit the park. But it definitely demands extra preparation and equipment.

  • Dress for extreme temperatures and high winds.
  • Travel usually requires showshoes. (Kahtoola microspikes may be enough on a popular trail that’s packed down.)
  • Don’t rely on trails to find your way. Bring a GPS, map, and compass, and know how to use them.
  • Check for road closures before leaving your home or hotel.
  • Avalanches kill people every year in Colorado’s mountains. Please take an avalanche awareness class so you can learn to recognize dangerous terrain.
  • Snow reflects UV rays. Protect yourself from sunburn and snowblindness.

March, April (early spring)

  • Most trails in the park will still be under snow.
  • Avalanche precautions continue to apply.
  • Expect frequent storms and snowfall (more even than in winter).
  • Be cautious around lake ice and snow bridges. As temperatures warm up, the danger of falling through increases.

The Best Rocky Mountain National Park Day Hikes for All Seasons

May, June (late spring)

  • Trails start to melt out, but there’s still plenty of snow. Snowshoes, foot traction, and navigation equipment can still save your ass, especially at higher elevations.
  • Afternoon thunderstorms become a serious danger. Start your hike early and get off ridges and summits by noon.
  • Hiker shuttle service begins around Memorial Day, allowing for A-to-B hikes.
  • School lets out and the crowds arrive!

Subscriber Bonus: Download my tip sheet on how to survive the crowds at Rocky Mountain National Park.

July, August (summer-ish)

  • This is peak hiking season in Rocky Mountain National Park. Trails are mostly clear of snow.
  • Summer in the high country is rarely hot and can actually be quite cold! Dress for your day hike in layers so you can adjust your temperature throughout the day.
  • Afternoon thunderstorms continue to be a threat. Hike early and avoid exposed ridges after noon.
  • The Colorado “monsoon season” usually hits around August, though its timing and intensity vary from year to year. It lasts about a month and brings more frequent rainfall and thunderstorms.

September, October (early fall)

This is my favorite season in the park (especially October).

  • The crowds dwindle a bit as kids head back to school. But fall colors (a short event in Colorado) and bugling bull elk still draw hordes of visitors.
  • Snow may start to fall but doesn’t accumulate on trails. Travel is still mostly easy.
  • The “monsoon” typically ends in early September. Weather is drier and more stable, but watch for stray thunderstorms in the afternoon.
  • The hiker shuttle runs less frequently and stops altogether in October.

November, December (late fall)

  • Snow begins to build up on the trails again. Dust off those snowshoes and microspikes!
  • Avalanche danger returns.
  • The days get shorter. Plan your hike carefully, and don’t get caught in the dark.
  • Check for road closures before leaving your home or hotel.
The Best Rocky Mountain National Park Day Hikes for All Seasons

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The 5 Best All-Season Day Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park

So now the only question is, where should you go?

Without further ado, I bring you the best Rocky Mountain National Park day hikes for any season. (In my humble opinion, of course. But hey. I’ve been day hiking here since 1999!)

If you need some overview maps to orient yourself, you can download them here. To print detailed hiking maps from your home computer, check out CalTopo.com.

Happy hiking!

1. Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes

The Best Rocky Mountain National Park Hikes for All Seasons

Dream Lake [CC Image courtesy of dmtilley via Wikimedia Commons]

The Best Rocky Mountain National Park Day Hikes for All Seasons

My mom walking on water at Nymph Lake

The Best Rocky Mountain National Park Day Hikes for All Seasons

Snow climbing practice at Emerald Lake (Note: you don’t need a helmet for this hike!)

Emerald Lake Hike Stats
Trailhead: Bear Lake

Round Trip Distance: 3.6 mi.

Elevation Gain: 615′

Max Elevation: 10,090′

Winter Skill Level: Beginner (suitable for everyone)

Why it rocks

This one may be short, but the wow factor is incredible! It’s a perfect day hiking intro to Rocky Mountain National Park for first-time visitors and beginning hikers. And I also can’t think of a better way to try snowshoeing for the first time. (See my mom in that photo? She loved it.)

Even if you don’t go all the way up to Emerald Lake, there’s still plenty of jaw-dropping scenery to enjoy. In fact, the most beautiful spot on the trail is probably the closer end of Dream Lake. If it looks familiar, don’t be surprised. You may have seen it on a postcard.

Winter tips

Due to its insane popularity, this trail is usually packed down and fairly easy to follow.

Many of the steep slopes around Emerald Lake are avalanche-prone. Your safest bet is to stay on the side of the lake where the trail ends.

2. Lake Helene

The Best Rocky Mountain National Park Day Hikes for All Seasons

Notchtop Mountain towers over a frozen Lake Helene

The Best Rocky Mountain National Park Hikes for All Seasons

Lake Helene in early September [CC Image courtesy of Kimon Berlin via Flickr]

Lake Helene Hike Stats
Trailhead: Bear Lake

Round Trip Distance: 6.3 mi.

Elevation Gain: 1,294′

Max Elevation: 10,692

Winter Skill Level: Intermediate

Why it rocks

This little lake sits in the shadow of rugged Notchtop Mountain, which is especially majestic in the snow! The entire hike is quite scenic and crosses forests, meadows, and talus fields. While Lake Helene isn’t far from the trail, you may have to work a bit of navigation voodoo to find it.

Winter tips

The trail passes briefly below avalanche terrain in a few spots. Be alert while traveling, and check the Colorado Avalanche Information Center website for an up-to-date forecast.

3. The Loch

The Best Rocky Mountain National Park Day Hikes for All Seasons

The Loch in summer

The Best Rocky Mountain National Park Day Hikes for All Seasons

Blowing snow at The Loch

The Loch Hike Stats
Trailhead: Glacier Gorge

Round Trip Distance: 5.9 mi.

Elevation Gain: 1,062′

Max Elevation: 10,210′

Winter Skill Level: Beginner

Why it rocks

This is my favorite easy day hike in Rocky Mountain National Park and the one I often bring out-of-town friends on. The trail passes by gorgeous Alberta Falls before climbing into a spectacular gorge. The final approach through Loch Vale follows a cascading river lined with wildflowers. The Loch itself is a sprawling alpine lake with gorgeous views of Thatchtop Mountain.

Winter tips

An unofficial winter trail bypasses Alberta Falls, allowing a shorter but steeper approach. Look for it on your right about 0.2 mi. after the Bear Lake turn off. The winter trail rejoins the main trail near the junction between the Loch Vale and Mills Lake trails.

Extra credit

Many hikes continue up Loch Vale to Timberline Falls, the Lake of Glass, and Sky Pond. The frozen falls are especially beautiful in winter, but climbing the icy bench to reach the upper lakes can be treacherous. If you want to try it, consider bringing an ice ax or tool.

4. Mills Lake and Black Lake

The Best Rocky Mountain National Park Day Hikes for All Seasons

Me at Mills Lake in November with Longs Peak in the background

The Best Rocky Mountain National Park Day Hikes for All Seasons

Approaching Black Lake by snowshoe

The Best Rocky Mountain National Park Day Hikes for All Seasons

Black Lake in winter

Mills Lake Hike Stats
Trailhead: Glacier Gorge

Round Trip Distance: 9.6 mi.

Elevation Gain: 1,842′

Max Elevation: 10,656′

Winter Skill Level: Beginner to Mills Lake, then intermediate

Why it rocks

Mills Lake is freakin’ huge. With awesome views of the Keyboard of the Winds and the back side of Longs Peak, it’s a destination unto itself (and a very suitable one for beginning hikers and snowshoers).

I’ve never actually done Black Lake in the summer. But in the winter, it’s pretty damn spectacular. Look for ice falls cascading down the drainage to the south. You’ll also have breathtaking views of Arrowhead, The Spearhead, and McHenry’s Peak.

Winter tips

See The Loch description for notes on the winter trail shortcut.

This can be a long and demanding hike in snow. Don’t count on having boot pack all the way to Black Lake. Bring your snowshoes and navigation equipment!

The trail passes briefly below some avalanche terrain. Always check the avalanche forecast before setting out. As you approach Black Lake, stay clear of the slopes on either side of the valley.

5. Flattop Mountain and Hallett Peak

The Best Rocky Mountain National Park Day Hikes for All Seasons

Hallett Peak from just above Bear Lake

The Best Rocky Mountain National Park Day Hikes for All Seasons

Fiery fall tundra on Flattop Mountain

The Best Rocky Mountain National Park Day Hikes for All Seasons

Hallett Peak and the Tyndall Glacier (it even has a crevasse!)

The Best Rocky Mountain National Park Day Hikes for All Seasons

On Flattop Mountain. Oh those frumpy hiking shorts!

Hallett Peak Hike Stats
Trailhead: Bear Lake

Round Trip Distance: 10.0 mi.

Elevation Gain: 3,324′

Max Elevation: 12,713′

Winter Skill Level: Intermediate 

Why it rocks

This is a physically challenging hike that takes you above the trees to an elevation of 12,173′. As you climb, you’ll catch glimpses of Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes far below. Your first destination, Flattop Mountain, is a beautiful expanse of tundra that’s dotted with tiny wildflowers in the summer. Leave the trail and navigate by sight to Hallett Peak, passing the Tyndall Glacier as you go.

Winter tips

Flattop Mountain is a popular destination for backcountry skiers. Slopes are mostly gentle, but keep an eye out for small pockets of avalanche terrain. It’s also important to watch the weather. Remember, it’s a long retreat from Hallett Peak to the tree line! Finally, always carry a GPS, map, and compass in case fog or snow prevent you from navigating by sight.

So there you have ’em, the best Rocky Mountain National Park day hikes for any time of year. Did I miss any? Comment below to share your favorites.

Beat the crowds and discover new trails in Rocky Mountain National Park! Here are five RMNP day hikes you can enjoy any time of the year.
Showing 2 comments
  • Nigel William
    Reply

    Hi, Sarah! This is an amazing article! You`re a great writer, I had so much fun reading this. You filled it with really useful information, so there is not much left to question about this trails. Photos are amazing, I hope they will motivate more people to go on this hike and see those breathtaking scenes themselves.

    • El Jefe
      Reply

      Thanks so much for reading and for your kind words! Hope you get a chance to check some of these babies out.

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