Estes Park, Colorado is one of the finest places in America to see an incredible range of wildflowers. Once the snow begins to melt in early summer, the wildflowers don’t take long to pop out. Higher elevations are often snow-covered into July, but closer to town, you’ll find posies in June. As a general rule, the higher you’re hiking, the later in the summer you should expect to see blooms - however, the summer season in the alpine is fleeting. The tundra will turn to its fall colors beginning in mid-August, which is a sight to behold itself.
One key to really appreciating the wildflowers is being able to identify them beyond their size and color—it’s one thing to point out the sweet little purple flowers you see up high, but it’s so much more satisfying to know that they’re Sky Pilots. Rocky Mountain National Park has put together this handy guide to identifying flowers in and around the park. If you’re looking for more detail, consider bringing along a pocket-sized field guide.
Remember, wildflowers are wonderful to look—but leave them be. Seriously! Do not touch, trample, or pick flowers (or any plants). This is, in fact, illegal within Rocky Mountain National Park. Doing so is bad for the park ecosystem. Follow Leave No Trace guidelines and allow others to enjoy the show and wildlife to enjoy what may be their food.
Ready to hit the trail? These six spots are some of the best places to (literally) stop and smell the roses.
1. Lily Lake
This easily accessible lake sits in the shadow of Longs Peak, Colorado’s northernmost fourteener. A walk around Lily Lake is just under a mile, and the packed-gravel trail is flat nearly the whole way, which means it’s an excellent hike for families, as well as a nice way to stretch your legs if you’re doing a big scenic drive. Keep an eye out for Columbine, the Colorado state flower, which begins blooming at lower elevations in June and through August higher in the mountains. If you’re lucky, you may also spot a tiger salamander. They’re about 8 inches long, with markings resembling a tiger, and like cool and dark places. There’s limited parking at the trailhead, which is right off Highway 7 just south of town.
2. Cub Lake
For variety (especially in the early season), you can’t beat a hike to Cub Lake. There is a multitude of wildflowers growing along the trail, and because the elevation is a bit lower than some of the other lakes near Estes Park—a little over 8,600 feet—it’s a great place to spot early-summer blooms. A loop around Cub Lake clocks in at 6.1 miles. It’s relatively moderate hiking, but thanks to the altitude, that still feels a bit challenging. The trailhead is immediately west of Moraine Park in Rocky Mountain National Park.
3. Kruger Rock Trail
This moderate four-mile loop climbs 1,000 gradual feet to the top of Kruger Rock, where you’ll see panoramic views of the Estes Park valley, as well as the high peaks of the Continental Divide. The trail begins by winding along the edge of a gorgeous high-altitude meadow, which is the perfect breeding ground for the dozens of wildflower varieties that grow in the Rockies. In late May and early June, you may spot blue and purple Mountain Iris. Bright red Kings Crown typically boom from early July to mid-August. The yellow Snow Buttercup is only found in the southern Rocky Mountains, and its bright bloom can usually be found throughout the summer, from June through August. Access the trail through the Hermit Park Open Space, which is just southeast of Estes Park on Highway 36.
4. Trail Ridge Road
Trail Ridge Road is among the most spectacular places you can drive a car—and not just because it crosses the Continental Divide, offers sweeping views, and is the highest paved road in Colorado. A drive over the road, which in most years, opens fully by Memorial Day weekend, is also a perfect way to tour the park’s wildflower offerings. Pull off at the Alpine Visitor Center to learn more about the flowers on display, or walk the Tundra Nature Trail or Ute Trail to see Alpine Avens and Alpine Forget-Me-Nots for yourself.
5. Gem Lake
The lake itself lives up to its name, but there’s something even more unique about Gem Lake. It’s home to a species of wildflower called Telesonix jamesii, which grows in the granite cracks surrounding the lake. The hike to spring-fed Gem Lake is short but stout: It’s just 3.3 miles round-trip, but the trail is fairly steep, which makes for more difficult hiking. The reward is worth it to check out those pink flowers, though. Reach the trailhead by heading north of town to the Lumpy Ridge Trailhead.
6. Big Thompson River Walk
After taking in the blooms all day, a walk through town is just the way to wrap it up. Fortunately, Estes Park boasts some of the most gorgeous in-town views you’ll find anywhere. You can take them all in (along with some more flowers) along the Big Thompson River Walk, which begins at the Estes Park Visitor Center. Stroll as far as you like, perhaps stopping to grab a bite or a brew downtown or taking a break on one of the walk’s many benches.
Stop by a visitor’s center in Rocky Mountain National Park to find out more information about wildflower viewing and what’s blooming during your visit. It will help make already spectacular hikes even more memorable.
Written by Emma Walker for Matcha in partnership with Visit Estes Park and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.