Take a Hike! – To Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

June 28, 2024 at 8:21 p.m.
A photographer keeps a safe distance from moose feeding at Sprague lake. Photo by Nick Thomas
A photographer keeps a safe distance from moose feeding at Sprague lake. Photo by Nick Thomas

...by Nick Thomas

Sunrise at Sprague Lake... Can you spot the moose? Photo by Nick Thomas


Admired for its dramatic mountainous beauty, diverse wildlife, and range of outdoor activities, Rocky Mountain National Park is a top destination for tourists. Each year, millions flock to the Colorado park and navigate the winding Trail Ridge Road just to experience the scenic beauty of the seemingly endless 2-mile-high mountains towering over the pristine region.

Some are also drawn to the various challenging trails stretching throughout the park’s fields, forests, and lake areas. For a gentle introduction to exploring at least some of the 215-square-mile park on foot, hikers should head straight for Sprague Lake, just a few miles down Bear Lake Road passed the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center when approaching from the eastern town of Estes Park. The 0.7-mile lake trail loop is completely flat, beginning with a short boardwalk before transitioning into an easy-to-navigate gravel path.  

But be warned – it’s one of the most popular U.S. National Park destinations for visitors of all ages from all over the world. As a result, in addition to the standard park admission fee, timed park entry reservations are required from late May through mid-October between 9am and 2pm. A separate timed entry reservation is required for the Bear Lake corridor (where Sprague Lake is located) between 5am and 6am. These may be reserved online for a small additional fee.

If you’re wondering why a timed entry to Sprague Lake is required at such an early hour, there's a good reason – sunrise. As breathtaking as dawn itself can be, when the sun climbs above the mountains on the lake’s east side and its first light illuminates the peaks of the western range, the view may leave you speechless. If the mountains are still snow-capped in late spring and the sky is clear on a calm morning, it won’t be the cool air that takes your breath away. “It’s just magical,” I heard one lady softly remark to a friend as she admired the mountains and lush vegetation perfectly reflected on the tranquil lake.

Arriving early not only helps to avoid crowds – there were only about 15 cars in the Sprague Lake car park when we arrived at 5:30am – but may also allow visitors to witness wildlife at its most active time of the day. After just a few steps onto the boardwalk, we spotted an adult male moose about 150 feet away feeding on aquatic vegetation by the lakeshore. Everyone on the boardwalk, mostly seniors, respectfully gave the massive creature space. This courtesy proved wise when the moose suddenly merged onto the walking path, trotting nonchalantly just a few feet away from several surprised but enthralled onlookers.

If you are seeking more of a challenge, venture further down Bear Lake Road to the Alberta Falls trail – the falls and lake taking their names from Abner and Alberta Sprague who were among the first settlers in the area in the 1860s.  The 1.2-mile round trip to Alberta Falls features an elevation gain of 160 feet with some brief steep sections. When we visited, snow was still melting making the trail slippery in places.

Fellow hikers arriving at Alberta Falls. Photo by Nick Thomas


On the trail, we met a lady in her seventies wearing a red jacket, white broad-brimmed hat, and wisely wielding a pair of hiker’s walking poles and navigating the slick ice with great skill (we foolishly left ours in the car!). Explaining she was a veteran hiker with experience walking all over the park, she said the 30-foot Alberta waterfall cascading into Glacier Creek at the end of the trail made it worth the extra effort and just another reason why she loved Rocky Mountain National Park. We couldn’t agree more.

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery in Alabama and has written features, columns, and interviews for many newspapers and magazines. His “Take a Hike!” column describes short trails, hikes, and walks from around the country that seniors might enjoy while traveling. His website is www.getnickt.org

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