Estes Park has some of the best hiking right in its backyard. The 415-square-mile Rocky Mountain National Park has nearly 400 miles of hiking trails that take you through mountain meadows to alpine lakes, stunning waterfalls, and vivid tundra above treeline. Rocky boasts more than 60 mountain peaks of more than 12,000ft in elevation. Click here to view our Quick Hiking Guide.
Don’t rush In
Even fit individuals coming from lower elevations may experience problems with altitude. Before heading out for your adventure, make sure you are acclimated to the elevation, and, more importantly, know your limits! You won’t prove anything by having to hitch a ride in an ambulance. Click here for High-altitude Hints.
No matter how short your hike is, always carry water! Have a good backpack with water, food, a rain jacket, sunscreen, a whistle, headlamp, a map (the old-fashioned paper kind!), and a first-aid kit. Maps are available at Rocky’s visitor centers.
Sipping from a hydration pack or taking an occasional drink from water bottles in a fanny pack with holsters is an easy way to stay hydrated. Taking small sips often is better than occasional large gulps. Drink lots of water and get plenty of rest the day before so you will enjoy your hike. If you start the day dehydrated, there’s no way to catch up! Take plenty of snacks and food. Sports bars, dried fruit and nuts, or the trusty peanut butter and jelly sandwich, are popular choices.
Watch the Weather
The weather in the mountains changes quickly and without warning. In the Rockies, monsoon season begins in July. Mornings are generally crystal clear with a cobalt blue sky. Afternoons often bring thunderstorms, but then the sky clears for a pastel sunset. Start out early and be well prepared.
Dress for Success
Wear a moisture-wicking material against your skin, and avoid cotton which traps moisture and makes you cold. Common these days are UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) fabrics. They come in short-sleeve and long-sleeve shirts, pants, and hats that incorporate up to UPF 50 factor protection. Add a warming layer, such as a fleece pullover, and then a shell for wind or rain. Wear a brimmed hat to protect your face. The proper clothing is incredibly important; there is never bad weather, just the wrong clothing!
Keep your Feet Happy
If your feet are happy, the rest of your body will be happy. Proper footwear is essential for a good hike. You want a comfortable, supportive pair of shoes or boots (tennis shoes will do, but hiking boots are best). Wear a pair of wicking socks as well; wool or synthetic are good options. Bring along a second pair.
Have a basic first-aid kit in your backpack. Visit any local outfitter store to find a kit that will suit your needs. Band aids, athletic tape, and a bandana are good basics.
A Good Pack
Your pack needs to hold water, food, extra clothing (including rain gear), sunglasses with good UV protection, sunscreen, map, knife, whistle, insect repellent, a head lamp, and first aid kit.
Make a Plan
Do not hike or climb alone. Most accidents happen to those going solo or those who fail to tell someone where they are going. Always let someone know your route and when you are back safely.
Choose your hike, not only according to your fitness level, but also your comfort level. You will have more fun if you’re within your limits. Also, it’s much easier to climb up something steep than to come down it, so don’t put yourself in a bad position. Remember that hiking to your destination is only half the journey; you still have to hike back to the trailhead. Plan your hike according to the slowest person in your group.
Don’t Rely on your Cell
Cell service is spotty, at best, so don’t rely on your phone to work. Popular topo and map apps will really drain your phone’s battery. If you are using an app as your only map, don’t. When your phone dies, then you will not know how to find your way back. Carry a printed map and know how to use it.
The trail often disappears or becomes hard to see, so trail markers are built. A cairn (Gaelic for rock mound) acts as your trail marker. Cairns are placed by those who built or maintain the trails. Follow the cairns and stay on the trail.
Not a Homage
Don’t build your own cairn as it can be confusing and dangerous for other trail users. Trail users could follow a cairn off the main trail and become hurt or lost. As beautiful as your hike may be, don’t build a cairn as some sort of homage. This not only destroys the natural look of the area, but is seen by others as “natural graffiti.”
Cutting switchbacks or walking off trail causes trail erosion and destroys precious subalpine and alpine flora that provide nutrition and water for high-
altitude critters. Watch your footing; some rock surfaces, especially those with lichen or moss growing on them, can be slippery. Never throw or kick rocks over the side of a mountain. They are a danger to the hikers or animals below. On the trail, walk in single file and step to the side for faster hikers. Give horseback riders (who always have the right of way) and uphill hikers the right of way. Pack it in, pack it out! Reminder: dogs are not allowed on any trail in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Experienced guides from Kirks Mountain Adventures will help you reach your hiking goal. They also provide llama pack trips, a welcome alternative to carrying your gear or your small child! Llamas, native to high-alpine terrain, thrive when climbing. Kirks also offers overnight llama trips in Rocky Mountain National Park, and they sell gear if you need supplies. 970-577-0790, kirksmountainadventures.com.
- Estes Park Mountain Shop is the place to go for all your hiking gear, clothing, maps, suggested hikes, trail tags, or guided trips. 970-586-6548,
- True Value Hardware sells hiking gear and all sorts of supplies to help you have a great hike. 970-586-3496,
- Plum Creek Shoe Station has a full line of hiking shoes, hiking boots, and supportive socks. 970-586-4061,
- Macdonald Book Shop carries a large number of books on hiking. 970-586-3450, macdonaldbookshop.com.