Last year, Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) was the third most visited park in the whole USA (after The Great Smoky Mountains and The Grand Canyon). It saw a total of 4.67 million visitors in 2019!
The park, which measures 415 square miles, is home to a lot of really popular and unique features. Like Trail Ridge Road, which is the country’s highest continuous paved road, and definitely worth a drive. Or that there are over 280 bird species in the park. Or better yet, that the majestic Bighorn Sheep - the symbol of RMNP - is the largest wild sheep in North America (males can weigh up to 300 pounds).
With so much to see, it can be hard to know exactly what to do when visiting. Especially, if you don’t have much time. Luckily, as Estes Park locals, and RMNP virtuosos, we have compiled a list of the best things to see that also happen to be off-the-beaten-path (sorry no Bear Lake hike here).
Black Canyon Trail, Lumpy Ridge
RMNP has a lot of trailheads, many of which are on the outskirts of the town of Estes Park and not inside the main park area. This is great for when you want to go for a hike, without having to deal with the traffic jams that build up at the main entrance stations. One of the best is the Lumpy Ridge Trailhead off of Dry Gulch Road. The parking lot is pretty small, and because it is the main trailhead for the popular Gem Lake hike, we do recommend getting there early. But there is a lot more there than just Gem Lake to explore. A personal favorite is the Black Canyon Trail, which takes you back west through wide-open fields, green meadows, and dense pine forests. There are also some great rocks nearby to admire (the Lumpy Ridge zone is popular for rock climbing), including the neat rock outcropping called Twin Owls.
Take the Black Canyon Trail all the way up to the Cow Creek Trail and either go left towards Lawn and Crystal Lakes, or go right and make a 10-mile loop back to the parking lot.
*After a long hike, why not cool down with a nice beer at the aptly named Lumpy Ridge Brewery in Estes Park. We recommend the Sun Lion Lime Wheat beer, perfect on a hot summer day!
Dunraven Glade Trail, Glen Haven
Possibly the farthest RMNP trailhead from the main park area is the Dunraven Glade Trail. In fact, for the first 4 miles, you are in either National Forest or National Wilderness before eventually reaching the National Park boundary.
This trail is beautiful. Think aspen groves, wildflowers, lodgepole pine forests, and a river paralleling you most of the way. And after the first couple of miles (once most people turn around), it gets really quiet, really fast. Another great thing about this trail is that it isn’t super steep, it is more gradual and flowy, making it a great spot for trail running (see our other favorite trail runs in the area here).
*If hiking early in the morning, once finished make sure to stop by the Glen Haven General Store for a cinnamon roll (the BEST) or some cherry cobbler with vanilla ice cream (also DELICIOUS)!
The Backway to Cub Lake
As a local, you quickly find ways to get into the park without actually driving into the park - which is especially helpful now with the reservation system (find out what we are talking about here). This relatively unknown trail is one of the best ways to get into the park on foot. Simply park at the Swiftcurrent Lodge and walk towards the gate that says No Trespassing (we know, not the nicest thing, but don’t worry you are on private land for maybe 30 seconds). Stay to the road until you see a singletrack trail breaking off towards the river - follow that until you get to a large bridge. Go under it and BAM you are in RMNP and only a couple miles from the Cub Lake Trailhead and Fern Lake Trailhead.
The easiest, and best way, to get to either is to follow the singletrack to a parking area where you will likely see a lot of fishermen. Go past them and towards a dirt road that leads to a couple historic cabins. Keep walking down that road for about a mile until it ends at a parking area and another single track trail begins. Now it gets really pretty. Keep on the trail and you will see flowers, pine forests, lush meadows, and a nice crystal clear mountain stream (and even possibly a moose). Eventually, you will get to the Cub Lake trail (there will be a marker). But for the first couple of miles, you will have the trail, and the scenery, all to yourself.
*Nearby is a great donut shop, called The Donut Haus (it is now in a gas station). They close by noon in the summer, so maybe consider stopping in for a nice sugar boost before your hike.
The CCY Hike, Fall River Road
This hike is definitely one of the harder ones in the park, but even if you don’t do all of it, it is still worth checking out - for the views alone. To get to the trailhead you have to drive up Old Fall River Road, a beautiful dirt road that switchbacks up the mountain, through aspen groves, until eventually reaching the top of Trail Ridge Road (in the 20's the road was the first auto route to take you to the high country of the park). It is a one-way (due to its narrowness) and completely worth driving even if you don’t plan to do the CCY hike.
But we 100% suggest checking out the CCY hike at the very least. It stands for the three mountains you can summit on the hike: Chapin, Chiquita, and Ypsilon, and is just under 9 miles round-trip. The best thing about this hike are the views from the top - talk about a birds-eye view of the valley. Plus, the hike is never that busy, even in the peak summer season. If you start early and go on a weekday especially, there is a good chance you will have one of the summits (maybe all three) all to yourself. One thing to note about this hike is that for a good portion of it there isn’t really a “trail,” more like social trails and helpful cairns. But because you are above treeline, you will easily be able to see where to go next (the next mountain top).
*Learn more about the fun history of Old Fall River Road here.
These four hikes are often very quiet, especially if you go early or on a weekday. While they all are within the bounds of RMNP, they often feel like a completely different area. Not because of the terrain - all four of them very much fit that “rocky mountain landscape.” But because of their lack of people. The park is getting busier and busier every year and because of that, it can be hard to find a trail that isn’t packed with people (which definitely takes away from the calmness of nature hikers are usually seeking out).
If you are hoping to get back to nature, do some exploring, and just have a bit of peace, then definitely add these four hikes to your list. Getting off-the-beaten-path is ALWAYS a good idea.