Rocky Mountain National Park: Three Hikes for Exercise

Continuing with the stay at home and hike theme of COVID 2020, I recently completed three hikes on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park.  Actually, the summer and the fall are when I stay home in Colorado anyway to enjoy its natural beauty.

I recently took a housesitting job in Longmont on Trusted Housesitters.  As a result, I shortened my drive to Rocky Mountain National Park by 45 minutes, and it only took me about one hour to get to each of the three hikes.

I’d call these trails good for exercise.  What I mean by that is the hikes were either somewhat challenging or easy enough to run, and aside from the final destination, which was beautiful, getting there wasn’t quite as pretty as other hikes I’ve enjoyed this summer.  Consequently, I’d rank them as good hikes to get the heart rate going.

Estes Cone

Regulations and Parking

My first hike of the week was up to Estes Cone.  It may be reached from two trailheads, Lily Lake or Longs Peak.  I accessed the hike via Longs Peak Trailhead, but I understand the Lily Lake way is harder.  I selected this option as I planned on hiking three days in a row and needed to save some juice for climbing up Twin Sisters the following morning.  In addition, I wanted to see Eugenia Mine.

Currently, during COVID regulations, a reservation is needed to hike in Rocky Mountain National Park.  These trails, however, that are outside of the main entrance and don’t seem to be monitored.  I said “hello” to three rangers on the trail and none of them asked me to present a permit, though without cell service, that would have been hard to do.

Anyway, as most Coloradoans know, Longs Peak is a 14er, thus the parking lot at the trailhead fills up very early.  Many cars were parked along the side of the road, though I suspect less than usual with all the restrictions. At 7:45 am I managed to squeeze in an unmarked space in the parking lot while taking heed of the “No Parking” signs nearby.

The Hike

The 6-mile hike to Estes Cone from Longs Peak Trailhead parking follows three trails.  First, Longs Peak Trail.  Then the Eugenia Mine Trail on the right fork and Estes Cone Trail on a left fork.  At a four-way intersection, the trail veers up toward the right.  All intersections are well marked.

The first 1.25 miles of the well-groomed trail climbs moderately through the forest until it reaches the remnants of Eugenia Mine by the creek.  The mine was staked in 1905 in what was once Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest.  In 1915, the area was designated the Rocky Mountain National Park by Woodrow Wilson.  The mine, though not terribly productive, operated for four more years before it closed in 1919.   

There is only a foundation of a building and a rusted bucket in the main area.  Going off trail and up the creek, hikers can see some pilings and a rusted piece of mining equipment, but there is not much leftover to see.

old paint can from eugenia mine

From the mine, the trail briefly descends to the right before turning left and climbing moderately to the four-way junction.  Thereafter (approximately half a mile), hikers must follow cairns up a very steep and rocky trail.  This average grade of this section is likely around 40%…very steep!

steep rocky trail up to estes cone

The entire hike is in the forest until the last 50 feet of jagged boulders which provide 360⁰ views of the surrounding peaks, including Longs.  Though rewarding views, there are prettier places for less effort, thus my “good exercise” ranking.

top of estes cone at rocky mountain national park

12 second video view from Estes Cone

Twin Sisters Peak Trail

Regulations and Parking

The following day, I tackled Twin Sisters Peak Trail. The trail to Twin Sisters is located across Highway 7 from Lily Lake.  This parking area is currently marked with a large sign stating a parking pass and timed permit are needed to enter Rocky Mountain National Park.  As a result, many cars parked on the highway.  Though more noticeably marked the Longs Peak parking, I did not see any rangers.  I believe the prominent signs are due to the proximity of Lily Lake, and the park wishes to discourage tourists from flooding the easy path around Lily Lake.

The Hike

The trail to Twin Sisters is far from easy.  And this is one time that I wished I hadn’t followed the directions on All Trails which recommends parking in the lot on Highway 7 and walking up the dirt road to the trailhead. I highly recommend turning past the parking lot and driving up the dirt road until reaching the barricade.  Park anywhere on the right-hand side of this road, and it will shorten the 8-mile hike by one boring mile.

The trailhead is located on the left-hand side of the road shortly after passing through the barricade.  With the help of switchbacks, the path ascends moderately the whole way.  It begins in a lodgepole pine forest which eventually opens to firs and spruce before it reaches a boulder field.

Along the way there is a nice view of Longs Peak from the forest as chipmunks and squirrels dart about collecting their pine cones.  The boulder field is home to pikas and marmots and affords hikers with wonderful views.

chipmunk with its pine cone

view of longs peak in rocky mountain national park

As the trail approaches the ridge, the wind picks up.  From here hikers can climb to either of the twin peaks, though the one to the right appears more popular.  The path passes by a house, solar panels, and radio equipment before it snakes up to a long formation of rocks.  There are a variety of views, especially for those who don’t mind some exposure.

view from twin sisters in rocky mountain national park

While I walked out a little way, along with most others, I didn’t make it as far as the boys in their twenties looking over the edge!  For the effort, I felt like Twin Sisters was much more rewarding than Estes Cone, thus if choosing between the two, go for Twin Sisters.

boys looking over the edge on twin sisters

11 second video view from Twin Sisters

Bridal Veil Falls

Regulations and Parking

My final hike in Rocky Mountain National Park this week as to Bridal Veil Falls via Cow Creek Trail.  The trailhead is located at the historic McGraw Ranch.  The cattle ranch turned guest ranch opened in 1884 and continued to operate successfully until the National Park Service purchased the land in 1988.  Now the McGraw Ranch operates as a research center.

The parking for this hike is extremely limited with room for only 12 or 13 cars parked parallel along the dirt road that leads to the ranch.  There is a sign at the beginning of the road which lights up “full” when there are no spaces left.  I arrived at 7:30am on a weekday, and only a few spots remained. 

Having said that, people come and go.  There are several hikes of different distances, and the area is popular among local runners.  As a result, a spot may be snagged midday thus it might be worth the two-mile drive past the “full” sign, just to check.  Additionally, due to the limited parking, no “timed permit” signs are posted.

The Hike

To get to the trailhead, pass through the gate, head toward the buildings and then follow the road to the left.  Much of the 6-mile hike follows this relatively flat dirt road and trail through the meadow.  For at least two-miles (one-way), the trail is well maintained and devoid of rocks and roots, so it is a good place for a jog over a gradual ascent! 

At the right time, likely early July, the sunny meadow is dotted with wildflowers.  I could see the shriveled remains at the beginning of August.  The bees, flies and butterflies flocked to the thistles that were left.  Speaking of all these insects, the trail was rather buggy despite not getting to the wooded creek until the final three-quarters of a mile.

thistle on cow creek trail

On this warm day in August, I would have liked getting to the shade of the trees sooner despite seeing a mama turkey with a few babies in the meadow. But eventually I reached the forest where the latter part of the trail requires a some maneuvering over some rocks.

turkey on cow creek trail

In the end, hikers are blessed with a variety of waterfalls…first a few small ones, and then the grand finale.  Bridal Veil Falls is a two-tiered cascade.  The second tier cannot even be seen from the base.  It requires rock hopping across the creek and a steep scramble up the far side of the waterfall shelf.

cow creek trail in rocky mountain national park

The climb rewards hikers not only with the second tier of falls, but also a limited view of distant peaks.  Being a lover of waterfalls, I really enjoyed climbing up to see both cascades.  I learned later that there is third one farther upstream.  Oh well, being alone and on my third day of hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, Bridal Veil Falls was plenty.

Video view of the upper AND lower falls

While all were nice hikes with lovely ending destinations, of late I’ve been on prettier trails and would consider these options in Rocky Mountain National Park better for exercise than nature’s beauty, relatively speaking.  But then again, living in Colorado, I’m likely spoiled. 

My favorite times to hike are the last two weeks of July for wildflowers and mid-September for the fall colors.  I hiked these trails in between.  Additionally, the smoke from the four forest fires didn’t help!  Regardless, a day in nature is better than a day in the office.  ETB

Other Hikes In Rocky Mountain National Park You May Like

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned travel photographer and blogger.

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