Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

A Guide to Hiking Rocky Mountain National Park


Rocky Mountain: Trail Maps
Bighorn sheep are attracted to the natural salt lick at Horseshoe Park in the Rockies.
Bighorn sheep are attracted to the natural salt lick at Horseshoe Park in the Rockies.
Stockbyte/Thinkstock

Rocky Mountain National Park has trails for a wide range of skill levels, so whether you're a novice or an experienced hiker, you can find a trail that's doable for you. You can choose your trail by difficulty or by distance, but because of the drastic changes in elevation, distance can be a little misleading. A 1.5 mile (2.4 kilometer) hike might seem like a piece of cake, but it's not so easy if the change in elevation is 1,200 feet (366 meters), like Butler Gulch [source: RockyMountainNationalPark.com]. Consulting a good trail map or a resource that lists trails by difficulty can help you make sure that you know what you're getting into before you get to the trailhead. RockyMountainNationalPark.com has trails organized by difficulty and by region, so you can find a trail that's good for you.

There are hundreds of miles of trails in Rocky Mountain National Park, but if you want to check out the three most popular routes, head to the Bear Lake Trailhead [source: Let's Go]. Seasoned hikers can do the four-mile (6.4-kilometer) one-way hike up to Flattop Mountain, where you can hike up beyond the tree line to the arctic tundra and see the Continental Divide in all its splendor. For an easier hike, take the trail to Nymph, Dream and Emerald lakes, which are actually glacial pools and offer some stunning views. If you're feeling adventurous, take the two-mile (3.2-kilometer) trail to Lake Haiyaha, which is a moderate hike through the forest until you get close to the lake, where you'll need to climb up some steep rocks to get to the lake itself.

If you're planning to camp along the way, look for trails that meet up with campgrounds. At Rocky Mountain National Park, you're only allowed to camp at designated campgrounds. Backcountry and cross-country camping does require a special permit, and only seven campers can occupy a campsite at once, to help preserve the fragile ecosystems in the backcountry. If you're doing backcountry hiking, there are official backcountry campsites, and you need to register in advance to camp in the backcountry.

The National Park Service (NPS) has some basic trail maps, including a Backcountry Site Map, so when you're planning your trip, that's a great place to start. They sometimes close areas to preserve those habitats, and you can find a list of most closures on the NPS website. It's a good idea to check in at a visitor center when you arrive, since they'll have the most up-to-date list of closures.

Trail maps are a big help when you're planning your hike, but it's also important to look at trail conditions before you head out to make sure the area where you're planning to head is safe for hiking.


More to Explore