Hiking in Colorado in May!

The month of May is arguably one of the best for visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. The temperatures are mild, the highlands meadows are lush, elk graze with their calves, and the snow-capped peaks of the Continental Divide stand out against the bright blue spring sky. In May, visitor numbers are relatively low. The number of visitors will more than double in June.

The best reason to visit Rocky Mountain National Park in May is the low number of visitors. While May’s numbers are double those of the previous month, they are still significantly lower than the peak season (June-September). It’s a great time to visit before the crowds arrive in June when the trails are less crowded, the weather is pleasant, and there’s plenty to do and see. The snowpack melts in April and continues into May. The montane meadows are lush emerald green, with rushing rivers and streams all around. The landscape is dotted with vibrant wildflowers. Elk are frequently spotted with their young on the valley floor, which is a stunning and one-of-a-kind sight to behold.

Hiking in Colorado in May!

Unfortunately, hiking access to higher elevations is limited during the month of May. A lingering snowpack and treacherous conditions present a situation that should only be attempted by experienced backpackers. Snow is guaranteed at higher subalpine and alpine elevations until June. Hikes in the lower montane ecosystem are recommended throughout the month of May. Plan ahead of time because the popular Trail Ridge Road is closed until Memorial Day when snowplows can safely clear it.

Springtime in Rocky Mountain National Park provides a variety of activities to suit all fitness levels and time constraints. Here are some suggestions for things to do in May:

Hiking: Stick to lower elevation hikes in the montane ecosystem in May. Upper Beaver Meadow Loop, Deer Mountain, and Little Horseshoe Park Trail are our top three (more on hiking below).

Tour the famous Stanley Hotel: The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park is over a century old and has many stories to tell. A 60-minute walking tour to learn about the ghosts of the past is available on select evenings. This is the hotel on which Stephen King based his film The Shining. If you dare, sign up.

Hiking in Colorado in May

Springtime in Rocky Mountain National Park means the wildflowers awaken from their slumber and adorn the landscape with vibrant colors. Indian Paintbrush, Forget-Me-Nots, and Alpine Avens can be found in May. Keep an eye out for the rare Alpine Sunflower, which can only be found in Rocky Mountain National Park. Tundra Communities Trail is a particularly lovely trail this time of year.

Wildlife viewing: Animals give birth in the Rocky Mountains in April, and visitors can see elk with their calves in May. They have frequently seen grazing in montane meadows. With over 1,000 elk in the Park, the chances of seeing a cow and her calves are good.

Fishing: Although the peak season for catching trout is from mid-June to mid-October, trout can still be caught in Moraine Park pools in May.

Hiking in May

In May, the lower elevations of Rocky National Park’s montane ecosystem are snow-free. Snow will remain at higher elevations until June. The popular trails in this area will be much less crowded than they are during the summer. Here are a few hiking suggestions for May:

Upper Beaver Meadows Loop

  • Mileage: 5.0 miles round trip
  • Elevation Gain: 935 ft
  • Trailhead: Upper Beaver Meadows
Upper Beaver Meadows Loop

This hike can be done in either direction, but most people choose the clockwise route, which offers spectacular views of Longs Peak and the mountains along the Continental Divide. There is a “loop within a loop” shortly after the trail begins, so don’t get tripped up. At the fork, take the left fork. This trail begins quite open and then meanders through ponderosa pines. Following that, the trail climbs steeply to the highest elevation of the entire route. The next half-mile will provide spectacular views of Moraine Park, Longs Peak, and the surrounding mountains. This trail is both difficult and rewarding, with spectacular views and wildlife sightings, especially in May. The final destination is a breathtaking panoramic view of the Continental Divide peaks.

Little Horseshoe Park Trail

  • Mileage: 6.3 miles round trip
  • Elevation gain: 748 ft
  • Trailhead: Lawn Lake
Little Horseshoe Park Trail

Travel west on Route 34 from the Fall River entrance until you reach the Lawn Lake trailhead. The first mile of this trail offers views of the three stunning alpine lakes known as Sheep Lakes. Cross Hidden River and Valley Creek before continuing through Little Horseshoe Park to the ridge at Deer Mountain.

Deer Mountain

  • Mileage: 6.2 miles round trip
  • Elevation gain: 1,210 feet
  • Trailhead: Deer Ridge Junction
Deer Mountain

With good reason, this is one of the most popular trails in Rocky Mountain National Park. It will be much less crowded and even more breathtaking in the off-season. About a tenth of a mile in, you’ll come to a trail junction. For the first mile, stay straight through the ponderosa pines and open meadows, keeping an eye out for deer and elk. As you travel east, you’ll see views of Little Horseshoe Park and the Mummy Range on your left. Moraine Park, Longs Peak, Hallett Peak, and the Continental Divide can be seen on the right. The next mile is a switchback climb up Deer Mountain’s western slopes. Before reaching the summit trail junction, the trail flattens out and drops a little. The summit trail junction will be reached after the third mile. Turn right for a steep climb to the summit and breathtaking 360° views.

Some other early-season hikes in Colorado are as follows: 

Waterton Canyon | Littleton

Distance: 6.5 miles one-way to the dam

Begin your hiking season with a quick trip down the Colorado Trail. Waterton Canyon is the trail’s eastern terminus, making it a short drive from Denver and relatively low in elevation. The canyon comes alive in the spring and early summer when the foliage blooms and you have a good chance of seeing bighorn sheep. The hike to the dam that creates the Strontia Springs Reservoir is 6.5 miles along the South Platte River, but you can make it as long or as short as you like. Leave the dogs at home for this one—they are not permitted on the trail to protect wildlife habitat.

Red Rocks Trails | Morrison

Distance: 6 miles round trip

If you ask any Coloradan about Red Rocks, they’ll tell you about the famous amphitheater. However, Red Rocks is much more than just a concert venue; the trails in the area are open to hikers during the day, and many a morning boot camp is held in the stands. To get the most out of your money, park at Matthews/Winters Park at the trail’s northern end. The Morrison Slide Trail leads to Red Rocks Park, where you’ll likely see mule deer and stunning geological formations (don’t climb on them—you’ll get a citation). By returning to your car via the Dakota Ridge Trail, you can make this a 7-mile loop. Take in the panoramic views of the Front Range and downtown Denver along the way.

Royal Arch Trail | Boulder

Distance: 3.5 miles round trip

This hike, like most outdoor adventures in Boulder, is a lung-buster. Begin at the Chautauqua Trailhead to check for closures and visit the ranger station, then head up toward the iconic flat irons. The Royal Arch Trail is only about 3.5 miles long, but it packs a punch—expect to climb many flights of rock stairs. Many hikers bring trekking poles for this one to protect their knees on the way down. When you reach the top, walk through the arch and scramble around on the rocks for a spectacular view of Boulder.

Centennial Cone Park | Golden

Distance: 12 miles round trip

Golden has a plethora of excellent early-season hikes thanks to its location in the foothills. Walking through Centennial Cone Park feels like you’re in the mountains but without the snow. The park is accessible from three locations: Clear Creek Canyon at the Mayhem Gulch Trailhead, and two locations in Golden Gate Canyon to the north. Part of the full loop is closed for elk calving until mid-June, but that doesn’t take away from the hike—still, it’s a great out-and-back on the Travois Trail from the Camino Perdido access (and you might even see cute elk calves in the park’s interior!). Check the schedule before you go: on weekdays, any mode of transportation is permissible, but hiking is prohibited on even numbered weekends.

Colorado National Monument | Fruita

Distance: Varies from 0.5 to 17 miles round trip

You don’t have to leave Colorado to visit the desert, and the spring/early summer months are ideal for viewing the cactus in bloom at Colorado National Monument. There are several short nature trails in the park where you can watch the desert come to life. If you’re looking for something a little more adventurous, the monument also has rugged, remote backcountry trails like the Black Ridge and Liberty Cap Trails. Always keep an eye on the weather in the desert—if rain is in the forecast, avoid washes and canyons where flash flooding may occur. (Please keep in mind that pets and bicycles are not permitted in Colorado National Monument.)

Hiking is one of the best ways to experience Colorado’s diverse terrain, thanks to the state’s more than 39,000 miles of trails of varying lengths, difficulty levels, and scenery.

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