The classic Colorado mountain town of Estes Park is nestled in an upland valley on the eastern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. On warm summer days, there’s nothing better than hiking up an alpine trail to one of the pristine lakes surrounding the town. Crystal-clear water reflects snow-capped peaks and puffy clouds, moose munch on willows in trailside wetlands, and wildflowers scatter across open meadows. It’s a Colorado experience that you’ll never forget. While there are hundreds of options to choose from, here are 10 of the best hikes that take advantage of the gorgeous lakes near Estes Park.
Note: Timed-entry permit reservations are required in RMNP from May 28 to October 11, 2021.
1. Sprague Lake
The popular 0.8-mile Sprague Lake Trail loops around its namesake body of water in Glacier Basin. The easy trail, perfect for families and seniors, offers spectacular views of jagged peaks on the Continental Divide to the west. Look for moose wading in the shallows and beavers swimming across the glassy lake, or you can toss a fishing line out from the rocky shoreline for brook trout. The trail’s packed gravel surface is accessible for wheelchairs and strollers.
2. Bear Lake
The 0.7-mile Bear Lake Trail encircles iconic Bear Lake, giving front-row views of rock-walled peaks towering above forested ridges in the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park. The easy trail is mostly level, with plenty of benches for resting and admiring the scenery. One of the best vistas looks south toward flat-topped Longs Peak from the north side of Bear Lake.
3. Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake
After hiking around Bear Lake, visit more lakes by heading up the 1.5-mile Emerald Lake Trail to a glistening alpine lake cupped in Tyndall Gorge below craggy Hallett Peak. The trail threads past Nymph Lake, a small tarn filled with lily pads, to Dream Lake. Come first thing in the morning to catch dreamy reflections of high peaks in the mirrored lake. Continue up the glaciated valley to a rock shelf overlooking Emerald Lake and stunning views of the Continental Divide peaks. On the way back to the Bear Lake Trailhead, take an extra-credit detour at Dream Lake onto the Lake Haiyaha Trail to make it a five-lake day. If you are looking for something a bit shorter, you can always hike up to the first lake instead of hiking the whole trail to see all three.
4. Mills Lake, Jewel Lake, and Black Lake
The moderate Glacier Gorge Trail, beginning at a trailhead near Bear Lake, climbs south for 2.8 miles to Mills Lake, a gorgeous lake surrounded by breathtaking mountain scenery. (The Glacier Gorge parking lot usually fills early, so it’s a good idea to add half mile to your hike and start from Bear Lake.) Longs Peak—the highpoint of Rocky Mountain National Park—and Pagoda Peak tower beyond the lake at the head of Glacier Gorge. After admiring the view, continue south on the trail for another two miles past smaller Jewel Lake to Black Lake, a glacial pond below granite cliffs.
5. Blue Lake and Mitchell Lake
The moderate Mitchell Lake Trail, beginning on the edge of the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, scrambles 1.9 miles past forest-fringed Mitchell Lake to lofty Blue Lake, a gleaming turquoise-colored pond filling an alpine cirque below pyramid-shaped Mount Toll. The lake, surrounded by glacier-polished granite and scattered meadows, is a perfect spot to see moose in the shallows, photograph wildflowers, and watch clouds build over the Continental Divide. A waterfall tumbles into the lake on its far west side.
6. Gem Lake
The moderate Gem Lake Trail climbs 3.1 miles from the trailhead north of Estes Park to a glistening jewel-like tarn cradled by granite cliffs. The lake and trail offer postcard-worthy views south across Estes Park to 14,259-foot Longs Peak, the national park’s only Fourteener. Hike in summer for wildflower displays, including the Telesonix jamesii, a pink flower that grows in the cliffs around Gem Lake, or come in autumn for golden groves of quaking aspen. Remember here, as always, to leave no trace while hiking—and that includes not picking or trampling wildflowers.
7. Bluebird Lake
Bluebird Lake, nestled in an above-timberline bowl below the Continental Divide, forms the headwaters of Ouzel Creek in Rocky Mountain National Park’s Wild Basin. Reach the striking blue lake by hiking 6.3 miles up the Thunder Lake and Bluebird Lake trails, passing Copeland Falls, Calypso Cascade, and gushing Ouzel Falls. Eat lunch on the granite slabs above the lake and enjoy a well-earned view of cliff-lined Ouzel Peak at the head of the cirque.
8. Lake Isabelle
Meandering through wildflower-splotched meadows and pine-scented forests, the moderate Pawnee Pass Trail climbs 2.2 miles from the trailhead at Brainard Lake to Lake Isabelle in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area. The wind-rippled lake offers one of the best alpine vistas near Estes Park, with three sharp mountains—Shoshoni, Apache, and Navajo Peaks—etched against the azure sky. When returning to the trailhead, watch for moose grazing along South St. Vrain Creek between Long Lake and Lake Isabelle.
9. Lake Estes Trail
Lake Estes, formed by a dam on the Big Thompson River, sprawls across the valley east of Estes Park. The family-friendly Lake Estes Trail loops 3.8 miles around the lake’s shoreline, providing panoramic views of the Rocky Mountains, fishing access for anglers, and plenty of fun for walkers, joggers, and bicyclists. Start your hike at the Estes Park Visitor Center or rent a bike at the Estes Park Marina. Watch for elk, deer, beaver, bald eagles, and waterfowl along the trail. Stop at the popular dog park on the south side of the lake if you want to run your pup through the agility course.
10. Sky Pond
Fed by snowmelt from Andrews Glacier, Sky Pond is simply one of Colorado’s most beautiful alpine lakes. Soaring peaks and spires like the Petit Grepon and Sharkstooth spike the skyline above the high-altitude lake and Loch Vale, a deep glaciated valley. A difficult 9.8-mile round-trip hike, following Glacier Gorge and Loch Vale Trails, passes Alberta and Timberline waterfalls and two spectacular lakes, The Loch and Lake of Glass, before reaching Sky Pond in the upper cirque. It’s especially gorgeous in mid-summer when fields of wildflowers, including stately blue columbines, splash color across the mountain meadows. (Note: This trail has the same parking issues from Glacier Gorge, so start extremely early, begin your hike from Bear Lake.) Keep in mind that you should expect snow here well into the summer. Also be prepared for a scramble up to Timberline Falls.
Written by Stewart Green for Matcha in partnership with Visit Estes Park.