Fall Road Trip, Day 3: hiking through the Rockies


Nymph Lake (Kimberly Gomes / Sunset)

After hiking and dining your way through Boulder, it’s time to explore more epic terrain. The Rocky Mountains are calling. Fortunately, this national park sits just 40 miles away, taking road-trippers no more than 90 minutes to settle into a heaping slice of heaven.

Upon reaching Estes Park, stop by the Visitor Center for tips and mapped out trail directions from park professionals. From there you can take the free hiker bus from the Visitor Center, or drive into Rocky Mountain National Park. I happened to visit on Free National Parks Day, so the place was packed. In such circumstances, take the free shuttle from the Park and Ride lot at Glacier Basin off of Bear Lake Road.

Emerald Lake (Kimberly Gomes / Sunset Publishing)

Working with just one day in the Rocky Mountains, I set my sights on a trio-lake trail. This gentle, 3.5 out-and-back hike starts at the Bear Lake trailhead and showcases Nymph Lake and Dream Lake before unveiling Emerald Lake as the majestic finale. As a first-timer, this scene simply blew me away. Between its bursts of fall color and endless mountain views, this family-friendly route allows you to enjoy the park’s beauty without delving into rigorous terrain.

Be sure to pack snacks, a lunch, along with plenty of water. The terrain may be gentle, but the high altitude paired with a couple days of hiking in Boulder will likely leave you reaching for extra fuel.

(Kimberly Gomes / Sunset Publishing)

Those looking to soak up a bit more can continue driving along Bear Lake Road, or cruise along Trail Ridge Road for stunning bursts of fall color. On your way out, take your time and scope out the herds of bugling elk grazing through the valley.

For a more robust guide to where to eat, sleep, and explore in the Rocky Mountains, check out our comprehensive guide.

(Kimberly Gomes / Sunset Publishing)