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1. Emerald Lake Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park

 Hallett Peak is prominent and easily distinguishable for its blocky formation, and can be seen from Estes Park.
Hallett Peak sits in the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park, just to the west of Emerald Lake. It is known for having one of the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America. Photo by txbowen licensed under CC BY 2.0

Rocky Mountain National Park: The pride and joy of Colorado

The first three hikes on our list fall within Rocky Mountain National Park. Located just outside of Estes Park and only a 2 hour drive from Denver, RMNP has a seemingly endless supply (265,807 acres, to be exact) of hikes, rivers, lakes, wildlife and great camping. There are 300 miles of trails within the park for you to explore new areas with each visit.

You do need to plan ahead (which is never my forte), as the park is one of the busiest in the country. If you are visiting between late-May to mid-October, you need to purchase a Timed Entry Permit or have a Service Reservation (such as a campsite) along with a Parks Pass/Entrance Fee to enter the park. This requires a bit more forethought, but prevents overcrowding.

Helpful Hint: Did you know that the National Park Service has several free National Parks Passes? Current military members and their dependents and US military veterans and Gold Star Families can register for the free annual Military Pass. There is also the Access Pass, which is a free lifetime pass for US citizens/permanent residents who have a permanent disability. Your kiddo in 4th Grade? There is also a free 4th grade pass that is valid for the duration of the school year!

Emerald Lake: A gem of the park

Our first hike within Rocky Mountain National Park is the Emerald Lake Trail. The Bear Lake Trailhead will be your starting point, which also takes you to Bear Lake, just off the parking lot. I recommended that you take one of the shuttles to avoid the headache of finding an open spot.

The trail around Bear Lake is wide and packed and gives easy, flat access to a beautiful mountain lake without continuing up to Emerald. Along the way, you’ll pass Nymph Lake and Dream Lake and you will cross a set of bridges, allowing you to keep your shoes dry instead of a creek crossing. If you look close enough, you may be able to see trout in the clear water.

Looking up the trail, you’ll see Hallett Peak (12,713′), which 57hours guide Kevin Capps tells me is a popular place for climbers. The 1,000 foot north-facing wall is said to have some of the best climbing in RMNP, including Culp-Bossier, a classic 5.8 multi-pitch. If you get up early enough to catch the sunrise there, the sunlight illuminates Hallett peak with a beautiful orange glow. Another perk? You’ll get a great parking spot.

Of course, you can hike up to the summit of Hallett Peak too. The hike is just over 10 miles and is considered challenging as you gain 3,240 feet in elevation and traverse through steep and rocky terrain. At the peak, you will be standing at 12,718 feet with views of Longs Peak, Flattop Mountain, the Never Summer Range and more.

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