Beginner’s Trail Guide: West side of Rocky Mountain National Park

man hiking

Seeing some meese (yes, I know that’s not actually the plural of moose) has been on my outdoorsy bucket list for well over a year. It first started when I was working in Vermont and realized that was prime meesey habitat. After leaving without seeing so much as a squirrel, I shelved my moose ambitions and thought I’d wait until next year.

Until I moved to Colorado. Seeing moose was now a real possibility again, and when my boyfriend returned from REI with a trail that all but guaranteed a moose sighting, I was thrilled. We were going camping for the weekend just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park, and the lovely volunteer at REI had pointed out a few trails just inside the park that were extremely meesey.

After breaking camp at Shadow Mountain Reservoir (learn more about the campground here), we headed into the park for the day with our fingers crossed to hopefully spot a moose. I have a slight huge obsession with animals, so I was on the edge of my seat with my head swiveling around in hot pursuit of a moose.

And then I saw him. At first, I thought it was a large horse, but upon realizing it had antlers and was most definitely a moose, I let out a high-pitched shriek for my boyfriend to pull over. His ear drums were a necessary casualty. It was a REAL. LIVE. MOOSE.

Ultimately, we ended up seeing five moose all from the safety of our car – except for the last one that came casually charging out of the woods just as I stepped out of the car to look at a moose I thought was far away.

Where To Find Moose and Not Get Trampled – Beginner's Guide to Rocky Mountain National Park

We entered on the west side of the park in Grand Lake, off of Route 34. The drive is gorgeous and a pretty easy two hours from Denver, especially if you incorporate camping into your weekend (which I highly recommend!). We explored the Kawuneeche Valley area, which offers a ton of great trails and obviously great moose watching! Most people enter the park on the eastern side in Estes Park, but Grand Lake and the western entrance are still pretty convenient to Denver and definitely worth seeing.

To find the secret moose trail our REI friend recommended, continue approximately four miles into the park. After passing the Onahu trailhead on the right, there will be an unmarked dirt road to the left. Turn left and you will find a small parking lot right on the bank of the Colorado River. The trail goes off to the left over the river (there is a bridge, don’t worry) and continues west towards the mountains. The volunteer at REI says he has never taken that trail without seeing moose, so if you want to do some exploring, go for it! One thing – when you get to the fork in the trail early on, continue straight. Going to the right takes you to someone’s private residence (whoops!).

In the off chance you don’t see any meese, you’ve got these awesome views!

Keep in mind that moose can become aggressive without much warning, so if you ever run into one in the wild, get a safe distance from it as quickly as possible. They can cover ground at the speed of a galloping horse, so do not get close to them! For more moose safety tips, go here.

We did a little trail-hopping for the rest of the morning and afternoon, which was a blast! We attempted to reach the Alpine Visitor Center, but the drive up (VERY high up, few guardrails, lots of wind) proved to be too daunting. We did get out of the car to take in the vista and immediately realized that being above the treeline would not make for a very fun hike. It was freezing and extremely windy, although very beautiful. If you’re not big into heights, this is your warning that the drive gets very intimidating once you’re through Milner Pass.

Officially in the alpine tundra
Officially in the alpine tundra

Milner Pass does serve as an excellent place to stop though, especially if you want to see some bighorn sheep! The pass is also a good stopping point because it’s located on the Continental Divide, which makes for a great photo op.

Hiking around the area was still difficult even though it was almost July – there was still a ton of snow in the area. It’s a lot of effort for not a lot of views, so I would suggest stopping to see the sheep and going back down to one of the trails you passed on the way up (also north).

Photo Op! Yes, this picture was taken in JUNE. That is snow behind me.
Photo Op! Yes, this picture was taken in JUNE. That is snow behind me.

Irene Lake is a great little trail just below Milner Pass. This trail could be challenging for some, since it is uphill on the way back (although this could mean it goes down to something cool!). We did a quick taste test of this trail and then decided to try out the Colorado River Trail since we were determined to see the river.

Quick FYI – it gets a LOT warmer in the area of the Colorado River Trail. After hiking all bundled up like you see in the above picture, we stripped down to shorts and t-shirts and were sweating! It was also right around noon by then, but regardless it will always be warmer since you’re lower down and less exposed.

Despite the very steep grade when you first begin, the Colorado River Trail is relatively easy. There are several stopping points at varying distances – we almost made it to Shipler Cabins, which is 2.3 miles one way. If you’re up for a big hike (keep in mind you’re at 8,000-10,000 feet), the trail that goes to Lulu City (an old mine) and through Little Yellowstone is supposed to be stunning. It is definitely on our to do list for the next trip!

On the banks of the Colorado!
On the banks of the Colorado!

If you just want to do a couple miles, you’ll still get plenty of bang for your buck. You go through a gorgeous clearing, have plenty of views of the surrounding peaks and forest, and an up close and personal look at the Colorado River.

On all the trails I’ve mentioned, keep in mind you need LOTS of water. You’re hiking at elevation, so make sure to pack plenty – bring a few gallons with you to stay on the safe side. You can also read my hydration tips here. All of the trailheads do have vault toilets (better than just a port-o-potty, but still no flushing).

You will see plenty of elk in addition to regular deer (deer are so boring at this point!) while enjoying some of the best scenery Colorado has to offer. There are also plenty of short, easy trails like the Adams Falls Trail in Grand Lake (you hike into the park), so there is really something for everyone in the area.

The trails are very well-maintained and usually nice and wide, but this is a place that will definitely make you appreciate a good pair of hiking boots (learn how to pick out your first pair here).

To get into the park, you have to pay a fee, but remember these fees help make our fantastic national parks possible! Fees help pay for up-keep and improvement of the park, and I have absolutely no problem with giving parks my money.

A day pass is $20 and is good for seven days, but an annual pass for Rocky is only $40, which is really the better deal. If you see a lot of national parks in your future, I would suggest shelling out the $80 for an America the Beautiful pass. This gets you into any national park in the country for an entire year. It’s also free for active duty military and only $10 for a lifetime pass for senior citizens (62 and over).

Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park is an experience I recommend to everyone, regardless of whether you live in Colorado or are just visiting. You will be hard-pressed to find better scenery or wildlife spotting, and there are nearly endless amounts of trails to explore – the ones I talked about are only a small part of this massive park. I look forward to working my way through the rest of the park – hopefully I’ll see you out there!

More Information
What do I wear hiking?
What snacks should I bring with me?
How do I make sure I stay hydrated?
How do I pick out good hiking boots?

Published by Laura Cardon

Laura Cardon moved to Colorado as an adult and quickly realized how difficult it was to get started exploring the outdoors in a state full of experts. She founded Outdoor Beginner in 2014 to fill the gap in beginner-friendly content for camping, hiking, skiing, and other outdoor activities. In addition to Outdoor Beginner, she coaches beginner trail runners and works at Runners Roost in Golden, Colorado, where she lives with her spouse and toddler.

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