Over 40 years ago, my husband and I first experienced Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) on our honeymoon. We’ve returned to the park almost every year since — first as newlyweds, then as young parents, middle-agers, and, finally, as seniors. While we believe that RMNP is timeless, of course, we are not. As 30-somethings, we took many long — and steep — hikes. Nowadays, though, various health concerns prevent us from embarking on the more arduous adventures of our youth, so we look for other ways to enjoy the park. Here are some of those ways.
1. Walk The Loop And Have A Picnic At Sprague Lake
Sprague Lake has easily accessible, paved trails with spectacular mountain views. Mountain peaks (Flattop and Hallet) on the Continental Divide can be seen clearly from the east shoreline. At 8,688 feet of elevation, the Sprague Lake Trail is an easy, 0.5-mile loop trail around the 13-acre lake. The trail is handicap-accessible and features boardwalks and wooden bridges, as well as tons of benches. Sprague Lake is also a fly fisherman’s paradise. If you’d like to fish, you’ll need a Colorado fishing license (16 or older).
Sprague Lake has lots of parking and a large picnic area along Glacier Creek with more than 25 picnic tables, 15 fire grates, and flush restrooms (yay!). It’s very popular, so get there early to snag a table. We especially like the picnic table in the back by the creek. Ground squirrels and birds will investigate your spread closely. You might even see, as we did, moose in the lake or elk running through the picnic area!
2. Take A Stroll Around Lily Lake, Then Eat Lunch (Or Dinner)
The Lily Lake Loop is one of the easiest hikes in RMNP. At this peaceful spot, you can hike, picnic, fish, and relax. With only 10 feet in elevation change across the entire trail, the 0.8-mile Lily Lake Loop is more of a walk in the park than a hike. To reach the trailhead from Estes Park, drive 6.3 miles south on Colorado Highway 7 to the Lily Lake parking area. You can park at the lake or across the highway at the old Lily Lake Visitor Center (now closed).
3. Bear Lake Is The Starting Point Of Many Trails
Bear Lake has some of the best views in the park and is the gateway to a variety of hikes for adventurers of all skill levels. It’s one of the most popular hiking loops in RMNP. The 0.8-mile Bear Lake Trail is rated “easy.” With an elevation gain of just 45 feet, it’s relatively flat. Bear Lake provides amazing views of aspen, making it a spectacular location for viewing fall foliage. The trail hugs the lake, occasionally weaving through stands of pine trees. Since Bear Lake is unbelievably popular, you may want to take the shuttle, instead of your car, to the trailhead.
4. Nymph, Dream, And Emerald Lake Are Popular Trails Rated ‘Easy’ To ‘Moderate’
Although the Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lake Trails are rated “easy” to “moderate,” the first part, to Nymph Lake, is on the steep side. Here, it will feel even steeper if you are not in tip-top shape, or if you are not used to the altitude. We needed many rest stops along the first part of the hike, but it gets easier as you go (except when there’s ice or snow melt!). A good pair of hiking shoes, with hard soles and plenty of support, will help.
This is an out-and-back trail with an elevation gain of about 700 feet. If you get to Emerald Lake (the third and last lake), the hike is about 3.3 miles round-trip. You’ll be rewarded with impressive views of Hallett Peak, Flattop Mountain, and Longs Peak.
5. Endovalley/West Alluvial Fan Area Offers A Waterfall And Picnic Tables
The Endovalley/West Alluvial Fan picnic area has 32 picnic tables and 30 fire grates. You can even bring your own portable grill. There is a short, paved path you can take to the Alluvial Fan, which is basically a waterfall. There’s plenty of parking, but it’s still best to go early or late in the busy summer months.
6. See Waterfalls At Wild Basin Trailhead
Wild Basin Trailhead (Copeland Falls) is a series of waterfall cascades on St. Vrain Creek. The hike to the cascading waterfalls is a fairly shady, easy hike that is really more of a walk. After this 1-mile round-trip outing, enjoy a picnic at one of the Wild Basin picnic areas. The trailhead/picnic area is off Highway 7, between Meeker Park and Allenspark, to the west of the highway.
7. Spot Wildlife Around The Park
Elk can be seen any time; a popular viewing period is the fall rut, or mating season. Look for elk in meadows and where meadows and forests meet. Elk spend much of their time at or above treeline during the summer, moving to lower elevations in the fall, winter, and spring. Their favorite feeding times are at dawn and dusk.
Bighorn sheep are commonly seen at Sheep Lakes from May through mid-August. Moose also frequent Sheep Lakes, as well as willow thickets near waterways, Sprague Lake, and several areas on the west side of the park. Sheep Lakes also attracts coyotes, ground squirrels, and elk. This area is especially popular during the fall elk rut, so be sure to arrive early for parking.
Mule deer are common and can be seen anywhere. They are most often found at lower elevations in open areas.
Marmots and pikas favor rocky areas. Marmots are best seen on the alpine tundra along Trailridge and Old Fall River Roads. They are also prevalent at the Alpine Visitor Center. Pikas — small, light-colored mammals — are common in rock piles. Listen for their sharp, distinctive bark and watch for movement.
8. Rent An Electric Bike At Backbone Adventures And Cruise The Estes Park Paths
Want to zip along without pedaling? Rent an e-bike from Backbone Adventures. You can ride right from the shop to the Lake Estes bike path. There are lots of paths and you’ll be able to complete any of them in 2 hours. Make sure to bring your camera as wildlife is often seen on these trails. Check here for types of e-bikes, prices, and tours. The company is located at 1851 North Lake Avenue in Estes Park. They are open from 8 a.m.–4 p.m. in winter, and 8 a.m.–5 p.m. the rest of the year.
9. Drink Great Coffee While You Sit Outside And Enjoy Nature
Not in the mood for hiking? Have coffee at one of Estes Park’s fabulous coffee shops. We especially enjoy Coffee on the Rocks at 510 Moraine Avenue in Estes Park. They offer a “backyard” with jaw-dropping mountain views, comfy Adirondack chairs, and local wildlife near a trout pond. Stop by in winter for a hot latte. In the summer, try their iced coffee while you feed the ducks.
10. Go Fishing For Dinner At Trout Haven
Here, you’ll have to work for dinner, although, it’s actually fun! No fishing license is needed, and Trout Haven will gut and clean your catch! Your fee includes all equipment needed. Beware, though, you need to keep what you catch, and it’s a bit pricey. But who can put a price on a great experience — and dinner to boot?
We are sure the trout at Trout Haven are healthy and tasty. How do we know this? During our visit this past summer, an osprey swooped down and snagged a trout out of the pond right before our eyes. Now that’s a satisfied customer!
The pricing is as follows: $1.35 per inch for what you catch, $1 per fish to clean, and $4 to rent a rod. Trout Haven will pack, freeze, and store your catch for pick-up when you leave.
Trout Haven is located at 810 Moraine Avenue in Estes Park. Its summer hours are Monday–Sunday, 9 a.m.–6 p.m; and its winter hours are Thursday–Sunday, 10 a.m.–7 p.m. Fishing with Trout Haven is handicap-accessible.
11. Sign Up For A RMNP Ranger-Led Program
Free Ranger-led programs offer a peek into RMNP’s ecosystem, as well as its history, wildlife, and vegetation. There is even a stargazing program.
Evening campfire programs are probably the most popular at the park. During the summer, campfire programs are given at most of the campgrounds every night. They are also given nightly at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center (near Estes Park) and weekly at the Kawuneeche Visitor Center (near Grand Lake).
Don’t have much time? Head to one of the rangers’ short talks. They last about 30 minutes and are given at several locations in the park. In the summer, catch the bighorn sheep talk at Sheep Lakes. The Alpine Visitor Center hosts a variety of talks, including one on animals on the tundra and another about the history of Trail Ridge Road. Sometimes, a bear talk is offered. In fall, a popular experience is the nightly elk talk in Horseshoe Park. This talk is given during the elk mating season, so you are very likely to see some.
There are also several ranger-led walks in the park. Actually, they are very easy strolls. You can take wildflower walks, history walks, and geology walks. We took the tundra walk, where we learned how fragile the tundra is, how it’s home to several animals who have adapted to survive, and how to help protect it. After the tundra walk, to this day, I can’t help but ask other visitors to “stay on the path” or “leave the rocks where they are.” I’ve become a vocal advocate for the park.
Pro Tip: Dress warm, pack water and snacks, and put on sunscreen!
12. Take A Hike At 12,000+ Feet
The Alpine Ridge Trail and Tundra Communities Trail are both high-mountain trails that are rated “easy.” While the round-trip distance for each is relatively short, these trails are demanding because of the elevation gain and the extreme altitude. The hikes top off at more than 12,000 feet, so dress warm and bring water and sunscreen.
The Alpine Visitor Center Trail is 0.6 miles long and reaches a maximum of 12,005 feet. From the Alpine Visitor Center parking lot, the Alpine Ridge Trail is a short hike to a completely open view of the Rockies. Although the hike is short, it includes 225 manmade stairs that lead to the peak of the trail. It’s easy to see why the trail’s nickname is “Huffer’s Hill.”
Tundra Communities Trail is an easy 1.1-mile trail that begins at Tundra Communities Trailhead and reaches 12,285 feet in elevation. The trail sits on what feels like the top of the world.
13. Let A Horse Do The Work!
Not a fan of the exertion required to trek up the mountains? Go horseback riding. There are several good stables that offer this experience. One of our favorites is Hi Country Stables, located right next to Sprague Lake. You can check prices and book here.
Pro Tip: You’ll need a Bear Lake Corridor reservation to access these stables.
14. Spot Wildlife As You Drive Big Thompson Canyon
Up for a drive? Colorado’s Big Thompson Canyon goes from Estes Park to Loveland along US 34. This two-lane, paved road is built high above the Big Thompson River so it can withstand the rising waters during flood season. Granite walls tower thousands of feet in the air, and you might spot bighorn sheep, deer, elk, and hummingbirds.
The 25-mile trip takes about 40 minutes to navigate one-way.
As you can see, there are plenty of outdoor activities for the folks who don’t hike. These are also great options for folks whose “dogs are barking” from their hiking adventures.
Be sure to also check out all of our Rocky Mountain National Park content, including: