By Owen Clarke
The wildflowers are popping off, the creeks are running strong and the high peaks are beckoning. Indeed, Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park are a summer trail-runners’ paradise. We’ve got you covered here with a quick guide to a variety of superb trails, from a waterfall tour to a summit adventure to a dog-friendly option.
Best Waterfalls – Ouzel Falls Trail
This 5.4-mile round trip route starts from the secluded Wild Basin Trailhead off of Hwy 115. Access Hwy 115 off of Hwy 7, just south of Meeker Park. Often the “highway” isn’t plowed to the trailhead until May, so runners may need to park at an alternate trailhead like Finch Lake, or the winter lot three miles out.
This route has some of the most picturesque waterfalls in the state, all in a single line. While en-route to the 40-foot Ouzel Falls, runners pass three other stunning cascade waterfalls, the Upper and Lower Copeland Falls and the 200-foot Calypso Cascades. In spring months the Ouzel and North St. Vrain creeks run swift and high due to snowmelt runoff, and the waterfalls are in prime condition, making it arguably the best time of year to visit.
At an elevation of 8,500 feet, a total vert gain under 1,000 and a wide, well-kept trail, the jaunt to Ouzel isn’t the most intense run on this list, but the beauty of the falls are more than worth it. For a longer day, runners have the option of continuing on to Ouzel Lake and then Bluebird Lake (which adds another 3.6 miles each way and an additional 1,500 feet of vert) or angling northwest along North St. Vrain and the Thunder Lake Trail to visit Thunder Lake.
Best Loop – Lumpy Ridge Loop
This 10.7 mile circuit is one of the most classic loops near Estes, with 2,300 feet of gain on rolling trails and an elevation between 9,200 and 7,800 feet. To avoid the crowds visiting Gem Lake, it’s best to run this loop clockwise and finish at the lake. Runners start out on the Black Canyon Trail, which offers a nice detour over to MacGregor Falls on the left after a few miles, and continue on past MacGregor Ranch, where fields of wildflowers bloom in spring and summer. At the junction, runners turn east onto Dark Mountain Trail, which becomes Cow Creek Trail. Turning back left along Cow Creek Trail takes hikers to Bridal Veil Falls, another scenic waterfall with high flow rate in spring, in just under a mile.
The loop finishes on the Gem Lake Trail, passing Gem Lake and its chipmunks two miles from the trailhead. Runners have the opportunity for another short detour west prior to reaching the lake, on a one-mile trail to a large balancing rock.
Best Views – Twin Sisters Trail
This calf-busting haul is a few miles south of Estes on Hwy 7. From the Lily Lake Trailhead, runners climb 2,400 feet up a series of rocky switchbacks in 3.6 miles to attain either of the Twin Sisters’ summits (11,500 ft) from the finishing spur. Offering sweeping views of nearby Longs, Mt. Meeker, and the Continental Divide, Twin Sisters is the highest ranked trail in Estes Park on Trail Run Project. Given its proximity to Estes and the panoramic views from the summit, the trail is heavily trafficked in the summer, a reason to hit it now while the crowds aren’t out.
Short and Sweet – Kruger Rock Trail
With two miles ascent over 1,000 feet and a nicely-placed steep pull on the last quarter mile, Kruger Rock is perfect for a short, simple, but worthy jaunt. It’s also easily reached at only 10-15 minutes from downtown Estes. At a summit of 9,300 feet, Kruger Rock isn’t quite as rewarding as Twin Sisters’, but a top-out on Kruger is considerably easier and less time consuming, and still offers a panoramic vista of Estes and the surrounding terrain. Perhaps more importantly, unlike the previous trails on this list, Kruger Rock is outside Rocky Mountain National Park, which means among other things… it’s dog friendly. There is also only one junction to worry about, when the trail crosses the Limber Pine Trail a half mile out.
The trail starts from the Kruger Rock Trailhead in Hermit Park Open Space, south of Hwy 36. Hermit Park reopened for the season March 1, so Kruger Rock is fresh, virgin, and ideal for an early morning spring burn.
Most Underrated – Crosier Mountain Garden Gate / Glen Haven Trails
The Garden Gate Trail on Crosier Mountain, 4.6 miles up with a gain of 2,500, is one of the best little-known trails near Estes, but is also significantly more rugged than the previously-mentioned tracks. The Garden Gate alternates between wildflower-choked meadows and steep, rocky ascents, leading to the summit spur of Crosier Mountain (9,250 feet).
While a summit of Crosier (an extra short climb from the end of the trail) is rewarding enough, with sublime views of the Twin Sisters and Longs to the south, the Garden Gate can also work as a link with the Glen Haven Trail, which descends into the small town of Glen Haven. Be warned, this will quickly turn your run into a very intense day. A full car-to-car linkup of the two trails is 15.8 miles and 4,000 feet of vertical gain on extremely steep, rooty track to boot. Alternatively, runners can cut onto the Rainbow Trail a little over a mile into the Glen Haven descent. The Rainbow, however, is even more difficult to come back up than the Glen Haven, and works less as a runnable trail than a scramble in many portions.
Currently, Crosier Mountain is only accessible from the Garden Gate Trailhead, reached in 25 minutes by heading out of Estes on Hwy 34 to Drake, then west on Colorado Rd 43.