Length: 3.5 miles out-and-back*
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Why we love it: Great for wildlife sightings, especially during the autumn elk season
When to go: June through October
Fee: $25 at the entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park
Distance from Denver: 106 miles
Nearby Nosh: Stop by the historic Grand Lake Lodge just outside the park entrance to enjoy a cocktail by the outdoor fire pit overlooking the lake.
There’s something spectacular about spotting wildlife while adventuring. Big Meadows, the largest montane meadow in the 415-acre Rocky Mountain National Park, is one of the best spots to catch a glimpse of roaming deer, elk, and moose. And, because the meadow is located just less than two miles from the park’s Green Mountain trailhead, it’s quick and easy to reach at dusk and dawn—prime times for animal activity. We recommend making the journey during the fall for a chance to spot herds of elk on the move for mating season, but this hike is lovely throughout the summertime, as well.
After parking in the small lot at the trailhead, located about three miles north of the park’s Grand Lake entrance station, hikers will begin their trek with a gradual climb up a wide, rocky path through a dense pine forest. The Green Mountain trail is part of the 3,100-mile Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, so you earn bragging rights for (partially) section-hiking a thru-trail. Although wooden steps were installed by trail maintenance crews in attempt to help with this initial incline, numerous dead lodgepole pine trees from the beetle infestation have since fallen across the path making it more difficult, and hikers should be sure to look and listen for additional tumbling timber throughout the journey.
Small meadows with long grasses and aspen trees will soon appear, flanking the right side of the trail almost continuously on the way to Big Meadows, and wildlife sightings are quite common in these areas. Keep your eyes peeled for signs of wildlife activity, such as scat on the trail and spots on tree trunks where elk have chewed or rubbed the bark off.
The trail continues to climb its way through the cool, shady forest until it intersects the Tonahutu Creek trail on the right. This moderate trail, whose name is translated from the Arapaho word for “Big Meadow,” follows a wide, slow-moving creek past several backcountry campsites and the Kawuneeche Visitor Center, leading to the Tonahutu Creek/North Inlet trailhead in the town of Grand Lake, about 4.5 miles away. This alternative route to Big Meadows is a good option for those looking to avoid the $25 park fee or add additional miles to their trek (the total round-trip distance from the North Inlet trailhead to Big Meadows is about nine miles).
Straight ahead of this junction, just beyond a hitching post for trail riders, is the expansive meadow dotted with giant boulders and fir trees, with the Tonahutu Creek meandering through the middle and the 12,000-plus-foot Nakai Peak in the background. Turning left at the junction will take you around the meadow and further along the CDT route, eventually leading to Granite Falls (located about 3.5 miles from this point) and numerous alpine lake areas for more difficult treks. Once you’ve had your fill of the scenery, retrace your steps to your car.
Getting there: Take I-70 W to U.S. Route 40 West; stay on US-40 for 46.5 miles. Turn right onto US-34 E, which you’ll stay on for about 19 miles before turning right at Green Mountain Trailhead. The trailhead is about two-and-a-half miles from the Grand Lake entrance.
*This trail can also be done as a 7.5-mile loop from either the Green Mountain or Onahu trailheads.