Your First High In Colorado: Hiking In Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park is where we first fell in love with hiking. Our first time experiencing RMNP was in winter and it was with some of our favorite people. We never really hiked much before we moved to Denver and I distinctly remember thinking to myself on this hike “I love Colorado”. Since this was our first big hike, and it was in winter, we made sure we did our research before we went. What kind of gear we would need, how we get to the trailhead and what the weather was going to be like were all questions we made sure to answer. If you’re thinking of doing this hike, these are all questions you need to ask too!

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“It feels good to be lost in the right direction.” – Unknown

Let’s talk about gear. For your hike in the Rocky Mountains, you will need a good backpack, water bottles, spikes and layers. I never go hiking without snacks and Cory never goes without sunscreen so add these two things to your list. I have owned a few backpacks in the last few years, but the one I keep going back to for all things is this one. It’s light, comfortable and stores 3 liters of water. It’s perfect for day hikes, mountain biking and kayaking. I cannot live without my Nalgene water bottles. I bring this water bottle to work, airports, hiking and everything else. I could probably throw it off the mountain and it wouldn’t break. We throw some clips (carabiners) on them and attach them to the backpack. I cannot stress enough how important this next part is for your hike in RMNP during winter. Everyone in your party that plans on hiking will need some microspikes for their boots. These are metals spikes for traction when walking on icy surfaces. These will save your life, so do not forget to get these! We feel like Spider-Man every time we put them on and walk up an icy trail. Cory and I should have bought these day one of winter when living in Colorado. 

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“Carry as little as possible, but choose that little with care.” – Earl Shaffer

Living in Denver at the time, the closest entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park was in Estes Park, Colorado. This park is a big place with over 350 miles of trails, so there’s a lot to explore! Getting around in the park is very easy, so don’t worry. The park entrance fee is $20 (cash or card) if you don’t have an annual pass. It’s suggested during peak season to take the shuttle bus to all the different locations of the park. We have been there multiple times and never had to take the shuttle. I would suggest going early and just follow signs to Bear Lake parking lot. After parking, this is where we would check our equipment, put on all our layers and use the bathroom! This will be the last official bathroom, the rest is wilderness. If you’re not familiar with national park bathrooms, then this will be your first experience using a glorified hole in the ground.

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“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

The first hike will be to Bear Lake and this hike is incredibly short (you could really just call it a walk from the parking lot). It’s perfect for anyone not wanting to actually hike or if you’re not wanting to spend all your time in one location. We love all of the alpine lakes in RMNP, so I encourage you to make time for at least one more. The next part of the hike is to Nymph Lake, and if you haven’t felt that rocky mountain high yet, then this will be where it hits you. We would always take our visitors to Nymph Lake and it’s usually where they would first really feel the altitude. (Altitude sickness is no joke, please drink lots of water and don’t over exert yourself!) From the parking lot to Nymph Lake and back would be 1.1 miles round trip. It only gets harder from here, so I would recommend you take a serious break or even reconsider the rest if you’re feeling 1.1 miles is enough for one day! I absolutely love getting to walk straight across the frozen lakes in the winter and in some places you can clear away the heavy snow to see the beautiful ice underneath. If you do this hike during the summer you will get to walk around these beautiful lakes and get a totally different experience. The next part of the hike will take you to Dream Lake and this part of the hike really starts to get steep. This is where the microspikes will come in handy. I love the overlook on this part of the hike because you get so many cool views! The last leg of the hike from Dream Lake to Emerald Lake is not hard at all. If you’re lucky you will get see people skiing the cliff chutes down onto the frozen lake!

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“It’s Colorado rocky mountain highI’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the skyFriends around the campfire and everybody’s high.” – John Denver

I always triple check the weather when planning a hike in the Rocky Mountains. I would check the night before, the morning of and then on the trailhead before we started the hike. The weather changes so quickly at these elevations, so it’s always good to be ready for anything. I would recommend this hike to anyone visiting Colorado. It’s usually the first ones we suggest when someone asks us for ideas when they visit. The hike is very popular, so if you’re nervous about being out in the Rocky Mountains for the first time, don’t be! I can guarantee that there will be plenty of other people on this hike.

If you have any questions about gear, hiking routes, or Rocky Mountain National Park comment down below. I love talking about national parks and would love to help you out. These views are worth the hike, I promise! Now, it’s up to you to go out and find fun.

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