Big Sky 2018:  Great Hikes Near Estes Park

Big Sky 2018: Great Hikes Near Estes Park

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Auditors:  We are getting closer and closer to Big Sky 2018!  We are really excited about our conference venue this year.  One of the great attractions of the area is the hiking.  Rock Mountain National Park has many wonderful trails that will literally take you all over the interior of the park through an amazing array of ecosystems.  The trails are one of the best ways to see the mountains and fully appreciate their scale.  We have found that guidebooks about trails in the Park are somewhat inconsistent in how they describe difficulty levels, so we are including a short list of hikes that you might try, using our totally unscientific rating system to help you decide which ones might be right for you.

Easy (as in “Stroll-Around-Gently-After-Dinner”) Hikes:

Bear Lake:  This one takes considerably less than an hour, has virtually no climbs, but provides fantastic views of the surrounding peaks.  Especially pretty early in the morning and around sunset because of the reflection on the clear water.  If you can only do one hike, this is the one.  Highly recommended.

Sprague Lake:  Even easier than Bear Lake, but a little longer.  More open and less thickly wooded. Pretty flat all the way around.  Nice views, though less awe-inspiring than Bear.  Fun rocks to climb on for kids. Recommended.


Moderate (You’re going to puff a little, maybe break a sweat; some climbing but not severe) Hikes:

Nymph Lake:  Highly Recommended. This trail is near Bear Lake. It’s mainly gentle climbs for about a half mile up to a lovely mountain lake edged with water lilies.  Very worth the (slight) additional effort. If you are feeling pretty good after you get there, you can go on to…

Dream Lake:  About another half mile beyond Nymph, this one has crystal clear water that reflects the surrounding peaks.  Nice views up to Flattop. Some gentle climbs, but again, not severe.

Ute Trail:  This trail is longer at 4.1 miles, which is why I’m calling it moderate, but it’s basically all downhill and you can’t beat the views. Nearly the whole trail is one long vista of the peaks you normally see from Trail Ridge Road.  It’s a nice trail with few rocks. Goes from the Alpine Visitor’s Center down to Milner Pass, which is also the Continental Divide.  Best way to do this one is to take two cars to Milner Pass, park one and drive back to Alpine where you leave the other car and start the hike from the other side of the road across from the Visitor’s Center.  The last half mile is steeper downhills, with some steps cut into the trail in several spots, but it’s nowhere very difficult. Highly recommended.

Alberta Falls:  The trail starts either at Glacier Gorge or veers off from the Nymph Lake trail. This one is a climb, but less of a climb if you start from the Nymph trail because you join the steeper Glacier Gorge trail about halfway up.  None of the climbing is super strenuous; there is some scrabbling over rocks when you get to the falls, but they are very pretty.  Recommended.


Harder Trails (either steep or tricky or both): 

Cub Lake:  About 5.2 miles.  This is a pretty hike that sometimes gets listed as “easy” in the guidebooks.  It starts in the Moraine Valley and climbs up to Cub Lake (which is packed with water lilies and very pretty) before swinging around past the Pool,  through the Arches and terminating at the Fern Lake Trailhead.  Here’s the problem:  the trail is extremely rocky along most of its length, except for the last mile or so which is sandy. You are either picking your way over rocks or slogging through sand.  And the climb is not slight; you will work to get up to Cub’s elevation.  It’s not a severe climb, but it lasts for a long time which is almost the same thing.  The lake is very pretty and you do see the peaks very differently than from the more interior hikes.  Then when you get down to the Fern Lake trailhead, you are actually nearly a mile from the Cub Lake trailhead, where you left your car. At this point, you have no desire to hike another mile to your car, but you have no choice. Not recommended for little kids. Takes 3-4 hours.  NOTE: you can start at the Fern Lake trailhead (which also has parking) and hike backward just as far as the Pool bridge, which is about 1.2 miles. This is mostly flat and much more doable and you still get to see the Arches, which are really cool.

Lake Haiyaha:  This one veers off just before Dream Lake and has some pretty steep climbs at the beginning and the trail is rocky. There are some great overlooks and it does finally descend gently into the valley that holds the lake.  The shoreline of Hiayaha is all boulders; if you have school aged kids or teens, they will love this lake for the opportunities it offers to climb and jump around massive boulders like Ninja Warriors.  Trail terminates at the oldest tree in RMNP, which is twisted and gnarled and has been there since at least 1492.  You will not have to ask which one it is.  Very unique setting, unlike other lakes.  About 4 miles round trip; Recommended.

Emerald Lake:  This is probably easier than Haiyaha, but is a little longer and the trail is fairly rocky. It’s also a more crowded trail – most visitors head for Emerald.  Some steeper climbs, but Emerald is a beautiful lake nestled right against the cliffs.  Worth seeing, but be aware that the climb down is almost as difficult because of the rocks. Recommended.


Hardcore Hikes (as in, You Better Be In Shape for This One): 

Flattop Mountain:  This one is a long, tough climb up 4 miles, but you are rewarded with outstanding views and probably some friendly marmot activity.  It veers off from the Nymph Lake trail and will take several hours.  Not for the faint of heart: you will climb to 12,324 feet where the air is thin and cold.  Bring a thick sweatshirt if you attempt this one.  Can’t recommend this one as it is too exhausting, but other people seem to like it.


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