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Elizabeth Dengler | 03.22.2022

Heralded as Colorado’s most popular park, Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is a wealth of natural wonder, with alpine meadows, craggy mountain summits, lush forests, and babbling rivers. The wildlife here is abundant and commonly spotted, and there is a spectacular view around every corner. With a plethora of trails, there are options for everyone throughout the park. Plus, with 120 backcountry wilderness campsites, RMNP is also a fantastic spot to get in a bit of backpacking. Though the altitude and rocky mountains might make it feel intimidating, plenty of easier treks can act as introductions to backpacking in the park. If you want to explore the park by backpacking, you’ll need to reserve a designated site and get a $30 permit.

Rocky Mountain Elk grazing in Moraine Park. Photo Credit: Denis LeBlanc.


Bear to Fern

Difficulty: Intermediate

Distance: 8.5-mile (one way distance)

Elevation Gain: 1,180 feet

If you’re looking for an easy backpacking trek serviced by the park shuttle system, a good option is a route from Bear Lake to Fern Lake Trailhead (or extend it to the Cub Lake Trailhead). From Bear Lake, you’ll gently ascend through the wooded alpine, past meadows and lakes, all while enjoying views of the beautiful mountains above. Even though you could do this in a single day, there are plenty of camping spots along the route, making this perfect for a night out or an introduction to backpacking. As you descend, if you want to extend the trip a few miles, take the Cub Lake Trail to visit Cub Lake, a small waterfall, and hopefully catch a glimpse of some wildlife enjoying the meadow below.

Timber Lake Trail

Difficulty: Intermediate

Distance: 9.3 mile (round trip)

Elevation Gain: 2,012 feet 

Accessed from the west side, this short backpacking trip is a great way to get out for a night. Only 4.5 miles to get to Timber Lake, this trek doesn’t take much planning in route-finding. For a spur-of-the-moment night out (if you can get a permit for a site, of course), this is an easy way to venture out, enjoy the park, and bask in the remoteness of the west side. With gorgeous views of Mount Ida and Jackstraw Mountain above, you can enjoy the mountains without the stress of climbing them. 

East Inlet Trail

Difficulty: Intermediate

Distance: 15.8-mile (round trip)

Elevation Gain: 2719 feet 

This 16-mile out-and-back trek is a beautiful option for a mellower backpacking route. Though you won’t be summiting any peaks, you will still get to bask in the beauty of the mountains as they rise over the valley. The valley is a beautiful riparian terrain that winds past Adams Falls and several lakes, then rises into the East Inlet Vista. With abundant camping spots along the river, this is an excellent place for a two or three-day-long trip. Don’t forget to bring your rod for a bit of catch-and-release.  

Sky Pond

Difficulty: Difficult

Distance: 8.3-mile (round trip)

Elevation Gain: 2000 feet 

The hike to Sky Pond is a classic alpine hike. Though you won’t summit any peaks, the trek is high altitude, steep, and strenuous but extremely beautiful. To avoid the worst of the crowds that venture to Bear Lake, start this hike from the Glacier Gorge Junction trailhead. You’ll wind up Glacier Creek, past Alberta Falls, and then veer to follow Icy Brook, which leads to the Loch, a popular destination in itself. Here you will have gorgeous views of the valley and surrounding peaks. When you reach the junction with Andrews Glacier, you’ll be at your campsite for the night. If you want to take the side trip, after setting up camp, venture up the short but steep trail to take in the views of Andrews Glacier (get there before it disappears forever). In the morning, finish up your hike, passing Timberline Falls to Sky Pond. The views are outstanding at any time but unparalleled in the early morning light. 

Panorama shot above Sky Pond. Photo Credit: Kevin Murray. 

North Inlet Tonohutu Creek

Difficulty: Difficult

Distance: 26.6-mile loop

Elevation Gain: 3,911 feet

This almost 27-mile loop is on the west side of the park from Grand Lake. As such, it will be much quieter and less trafficked than the east side of the park. Though the distance of this loop may feel a bit intimidating, the grades are pretty mellow along most of the trek, making for a pleasant backpacking trip. That said, the loop does summit Flattop Mountain. With numerous places to camp scattered along this loop, you can make this trek take as long as you wish and enjoy some of the side trips. A great side trip from Pine Martin Camp is to venture up and back to Lake Nanita. Though the loop doesn’t run along the summit line, there are plenty of options for ticking off a few peaks, such as Flattop Mountain, Hallet Peak, and even Otis Peak. The views from the top are outstanding, and it’s well worth it if you can spare the time. As you turn west again, a fantastic side trip to Haynach Lake offers up some good fishing opportunities for those who brought their fly rod. 

Mummy Kill Route

Difficulty: Difficult

Distance: 16.7-mile (one way distance) 

Elevation Gain: 4,429 feet 

Only available once Fall River Road opens for the year, this route is an epic journey. Winding along the divide, this trail follows the path of the CCY trek but then continues through the Mummy Range. The first nine miles traverse the high alpine, and you’ll bag Mt. Chaplin, Mt. Chiquita, Ypsilon Mountain, Mt. Fairchild, Hagues Peak, and Mummy Mountain. There are no backcountry sites along this section, so make sure you get an early start to ensure you can get to your campsite on the other side. If you like, the valley is an excellent place to spend an extra day—take a trek up the valley to view Crystal Lake and Lawn Lake from below. *Though the park bus system is amazing, you’ll need to set up your own shuttle for this one.*

Long’s Peak Valley Loop

Difficulty: Difficult

Distance: 23.2-mile loop

Elevation Gain: 5,129 feet 

If you’re looking to get a good tour of the park, this loop fits the bill. Starting as though you’re heading to Long’s Peak, the route detours north at Granite Pass. A side trip to Chasm Lake to admire the Diamond Wall of Long’s is well worth the side trip. The beginning part of this trek is a bit more rugged and steep than the rest of it, and by the time you hit your first camping option at Boulder Brook, the route will begin to mellow. From there, you enter the park’s main area, and you will see a few more hikers as you join the Loch Vale Trail, pass Alberta Falls, and follow along Glacier Creek Trail. If you’re starting to feel the mileage, you can cut off the Wind River section of the route. You’ll still want to sidetrack to enjoy the lovely backcountry campsites a couple of miles down the trail, though. There is one more camping spot at Moore Park on the way back. You’ll pass Storm Pass, where you can take an optional trip up to Estes Cone or explore the Eugene Mine. 

Long’s Peak

Difficulty: Extremely Difficult

Distance: 14.0-mile (round trip)

Elevation Gain: 5,241 feet 

An iconic hike, the Keyhole Route to the summit of Long’s Peak is a must-do for avid and experienced hikers visiting the park. However, be prepared as the weather here can be unpredictable and dangerous. Do not summit the mountain if there are thunderstorms brewing. The best way to tackle the route is to camp part way up. The most popular spot to sleep is the Boulder Field which is closest to the summit attempt; however, there are other lower options if you get in late or just want to split up the hike. Staying at the Boulder Field, you can start in the morning and get up and back before afternoon storms roll in, without having to do a 3 a.m. start required if beginning from the trailhead. Remember, the hike up the Keyhole Route is exposed, steep, and requires some scrambling—this is just for experienced hikers. Hiking to Chasm Lake is a great alternative if you want to admire Long’s but don’t want to summit.


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