Four Hours in Rocky Mountain National Park

In April 2020 my wife and I spent a week visiting the Front Range of Colorado and soaking up all it has to offer. If you're not familiar with the Front Range, it basically comprises all the cities and towns in the Greater Denver area along the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. If you've ever been to Denver, you've been to the front range.

On our way up to Fort Collins (which is one of the coolest towns in the area), we decided to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for a morning hike at Bear Lake and a bit of sight seeing. As one of the biggest and most popular parks in the country, I had high hopes for what we would find - even if we couldn't give it the full attention it deserves.

Hour One

The day began in Estes Park, a town built right at the entrance to the Rockies. As soon as you round the bend and get your first look at it, it's clear that RMNP is going to deliver the goods. After journeying around the high desert plains of the Front Range for a week, it was almost jarring to turn the corner and be immersed in a snowy alpine environment. It's a surreal feeling how fast the landscape changes in Colorado. We were excited to get through the gates of the park and see what the park itself had in store for us.

Confession time: We had actually visited Estes Park the day before on a quick scouting mission, so we knew what to expect. We even had drinks at the Stanley Hotel bar (hotel from "The Shining"), which was one of the highlights of our trip - despite the expense!

The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, ColoradoQuick smartphone shot of the entrance to The Stanley Hotel.

The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado
The iconic view of the Stanley, made famous by Stephen King's "The Shining"!

Hotel bar at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado$40 for two Old Fashioneds is steep - but c'mon! It's The Stanley!

To enter the park, you have to either pay the day fee or purchase an annual park pass for unlimited access. Since we have plans to visit other National Parks this year, we bought the annual pass for about $80 (it's a steal!) and started to make our way up to Bear Lake. Of course, we didn't get very far before pulling over so I could capture this image looking across Moraine Park at the morning fog over Bighorn Mountain (right side closest), Ypsilon Mountain (left side background).

Looking across Moraine Park in RMNP at Bighorn Mountain and Ypsilon Mountain

Hour Two

Getting back on the road, it's about a 20 minute drive through winding mountain S-curves to reach the Bear Lake trailhead. Especially in areas like RMNP that can get crowded, we like to start our hikes early before many other people arrive. Because of that, I didn't stop to take any other photos on the drive up, but let me assure you, it's a breathtaking ride. Google image search "Bear Lake Road Colorado" and you'll see what I mean. Your neck will hurt from looking around (and up) so much.

When we reached Bear Lake, we found the lake to still be pretty frozen over, which is common for April visits. We were glad to have our microspikes because other hikers in just boots were slipping all around. We took our time here to appreciate the silence and walked around the outside of the lake admiring how the views changed at every new angle. From the far side, looking back at the trail, you can even see Long's Peak, the tallest mountain in Colorado!

Bear Lake ColoradoNot Long's Peak, just a cool rock formation at Bear Lake

Hour Three

We were loving the park and weren't ready to leave yet, and with a few hours left until we needed to be in Fort Collins, we decided to ask the ranger where we should go to finish up our morning. Friendly plug for park rangers here - they are the nicest people and know SO much about the area so their recommendations are usually spot on. The ranger suggested we continue higher up another trail from the parking lot to Nymph Lake for a better view, and if we had time, Dream Lake. We're all about alpine lakes, so off we went.

After about 30 minutes of relatively easy hiking up a snowy trail (thanks again microspikes!), we reached Nymph Lake. It was also frozen over, but I can imagine what it would look like in the summer. It's a semi-secluded spot with some really cool views of Hallett Peak.

Hallett Peak in RMNP ColoradoHallett Peak, as seen from Nymph Lake

Hour Four

We lingered around Nymph lake for quite a while and found that if you continue walking to the far side of the lake, you can climb up to a rocky outcropping that lets you appreciate the scale of RMNP and how vast it is, with views of Powell Peak, Taylor Peak, and The Sharkstooth in the distance. The vista really stops you in your tracks, and it's difficult to put into words. So here are two photos from the top of that outcropping.

Powell Peak in RMNPWhat a view for a lunch break! 24mm, 1/200 at f/11, ISO 100

View from Nymph Lake in Rocky Mountain national Park4 shot panorama at 85mm, 1/200, f/11, ISO 100

As if that view isn't gorgeous enough, spin around 180 degrees and you can see the whole valley below looking back toward Estes Park. There was some nice warm light in that direction streaming in through the clouds around the park, so I ended up with this shot, which is one of my favorites of the day:

Rocky Mountain National Park
2 shot panorama at 105mm, 1/80, f/11, ISO 100

After a full morning of hiking, it was time to head out of RMNP, much to our disappointment. We easily could've spent the rest of the day there hiking up to Dream Lake and Lake Haiyaha, and that would've only covered a small sliver of what the park has to offer. RMNP is a bit out-of-the-way for a day trip, but I'm so glad we decided to visit. Highly recommended!