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Got a Half Day to Hike? Check Out These Short Trails in National Parks of the Rocky Mountains

Getting off the roads in national parks gives visitors more intimate experiences, and what better way to get away from cars than lacing up the hiking shoes to saunter on trails? These shorter trails showcase some of the unique features of parks in the Rocky Mountains. 

Swiftcurrent Valley Trail/Photo by Becky Lomax

Swiftcurrent Valley Trail, Glacier National Park
The gentle Swiftcurrent Valley Trail takes in lakes, waterfalls, and wildflowers beneath towering peaks—defining features of Glacier. From the end of Many Glacier Road, the path winds through pines and aspen groves to Red Rock Lake, where a scan around the shoreline may reveal a moose. Continue to the head of the lake to see the real drama of Red Rock Falls (3.6 miles roundtrip, 2 hours). But more sights await at the valley head. The trail continues through meadows rampant with July wildflowers to Bullhead Lake (6.6 miles roundtrip, 3.5 hours). Look for moose here, too, and bring binoculars to scan the steep surrounding slopes for bears and bighorn sheep near cliffs.

Bullhead Lake/Photo by Becky Lomax

Grand Prismatic Overlook and Fairy Falls, Yellowstone National Park
Despite crowds, the view from Grand Prismatic Overlook is quintessential Yellowstone, with steam rising from several hot springs in Midway Geyser Basin. From the Fairy Falls trailhead, cross the Firehole River bridge to walk the abandoned road. Soon, a signed spur climbs southward. It’s a bit of a grunt up the hill to Grand Prismatic Overlook (3.4 miles roundtrip, 2 hours), but worth peering down at the fiery orange arms surrounding the vivid blue of Grand Prismatic Spring. To extend the hike and leave most of the crowds behind, aim further for Fairy Falls. From the overlook, drop northwest to rejoin the roadbed trail heading further north. Turn left at the signed trail lined with lodgepole pines to reach Fairy Falls (6.7 miles roundtrip, 3.5 hours), the park’s fourth largest waterfall. After enjoying the water show, retrace your steps to the abandoned road, turning right to follow it back to the trailhead.

Grand Prismatic Overlook/Photo by Becky Lomax

Hidden Fall and Inspiration Point, Grand Teton National Park
A triple destination trail goes to Hidden Falls and the two rock promontories of Inspiration Point in Cascade Canyon. From the Jenny Lake Visitor Center, hikers have two options: Jenny Lake Trail circles south around Jenny Lake to reach the waterfall and overlook points (7.2 miles roundtrip, 4 hours), or a boat shuttle crosses the lake to shorten the mileage (2.2 miles roundtrip, 1.5 hours, fee for shuttle). Either way, you won’t be alone on this popular trail. From the west side boat dock, the roar of Cascade Creek accompanies the trail to Hidden Falls, and you’ll hear the falls long before you spot them tucked in the forest. Then, cross the river to climb switchbacks to Lower Inspiration Point for views overlooking Jenny Lake and Jackson Hole. When rockslide repairs to the trail to Upper Inspiration Point are finished, you can add more switchbacks to nab the scenery from a higher point before returning to the boat dock or Jenny Lake Trail.

Hidden Falls/Photo by Becky Lomax

Lumpy Ridge, Rocky Mountain National Park
A loop trail trots along Lumpy Ridge, named for the wind- and water-sculpted granite formations that attract rock climbers. From the Lumpy Ridge trailhead, go left to ascend below the Twin Owls with their puffed chests. Changing trail vantages let you admire this pair of vertical rock spires from a variety of angles. After reaching the main Lumpy Ridge trail, a right turn marches below the owls before passing a junction for your descent on the return. Ascending on, several small switchbacks squeeze through a steep-walled canyon to reach a rock formation called Paul Bunyan’s Boot—it even has a hole in the sole. Then, the final steep climb tops out at tiny Gem Lake (3.5 miles roundtrip, 2 hours) tucked into walls of granite. Several outcrop slabs and a small, sandy beach make ideal snack spots. 

Gem Lake/Photo by Becky Lomax

North Vista Trail, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
A testament to the carving force of water, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is dark, narrow, and deep. To peer into the canyon requires perching on vertigo-inducing overlooks. While most visitors to this park just go to the South Rim overlooks, drive instead to the North Rim for the rolling North Vista Trail (3 miles roundtrip, 1.5 hours). Departing near the ranger station, the path pokes along the heads of two immense eroded fissures, where views into the canyon only hint at what is to come. Continue to a junction where a left turn skitters out to a promontory. No guardrails mark the edge, so use caution when peering down the precipice into the inner canyon and the Gunnison River far below. The name of the overlook says it all: Exclamation Point!

Exclamation Point/Photo courtesy of Flickr/jb10okie

Header photo: Red Rock Falls at Glacier National Park/Photo by Becky Lomax

From her home outside Glacier National Park, Becky Lomax revels in the Intermountain parks. You’ll find her hiking the mountain parks in summer and skiing them in winter. In spring and fall, the Southwest parks satisfy her need to hike. She’s the author of Moon USA National ParksMoon Glacier National Park, and Moon Yellowstone & Grand Teton.

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