A travel journal
to Colorado by lcampbell
Quote: After working at Rocky Mountain National Park for 3 seasons, I have compiled my favorite hikes – most of them challenging, and for the experienced hiker. But I hope to encourange new hikers to explore the backcountry – if not on these hikes, then on shorter but equally beautiful ones!
This journal is to encourage folks visiting the Park to get out of their car and experience the rugged backcountry. The hikes included are longer, more challenging hikes, as those are the ones that I mostly do and know most about. They are definitely aimed at more serious hikers – they include long distances, high elevation, and some are off trail and involve route finding. I have also included a couple backpacking suggestions. BUT, that said, I think that beginners can and should do some of these hikes if they are in good health and are physically fit. Or use these entries as encouragement to try other shorter but equally beautiful hikes at Rocky.
Lightning – afternoon thunderstorms are common. It may not rain, but lightning happens often. You DON’T want to be above treeline during a lightning storm, so plan to hike in the morning, and get back below treeline before the storms may hit.
Dehydration – A surprising thing about the Rocky Mountains is that it is very much a desert environment. You will see sparse vegetation, brown in color rather than green, and sometimes cactus. The air is very dry – you can be sweating, but not know it because it evaporates immediately. You will get dehydrated easily. Drink often and lots!
Permits are required for backcountry camping. Go to Welcome to RMNP, then click on "Trip Planner" then on "Backcountry Information" for Backcountry Campsite and Permit Information. Go to Rocky General Information for other information.
Check out my Estes Park Journal: Estes Park – Beautiful but Busy to read about RMNP in general including shorter hikes and scenic drives), climbing Longs Peak (the highest peak in Rocky at 14,255 feet), and Estes Park, a small town called the gateway to RMNP.
But travelling to and from the trailheads inside Rocky Mountain National Park is something you will have to deal with. Rocky gets over 3.5 million visitors each year, most of them between June and September. Expect crowded Visitor Centers, parking areas, roads, and trailheads. I advise to get to the trailhead as early as possible (for sure before 8am, earlier if possible) in order to get a parking spot. You will also have a lot fewer people on the trail at this time.
Another option is to stop at the shuttle bus parking area about 5 miles before Bear Lake across from Glacier Basin Campground. From there, you can take the free shuttle bus to any of the trailheads in the Bear Lake corridor. I think it also goes to other trailheads, but I am not up to date on the shuttle system - check out their website or ask at the Visitor Centers for more information.
This was a great hike that my friend and I did one fine sunny day. We started early in the morning from Bear Lake parking lot. Bear Lake is an immensely popular destination for the over 3 million visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park. Because we went very early, we had no problem finding a parking spot. Latecomers may find all the parking spots filled. Another option is to stop at the Shuttle Bus parking area 5 miles before the Bear Lake parking area – from there, you can catch a free shuttle bus to the trailhead.
We didn’t know anything about Pool of Jade except that we liked the name. The hike starts out on a popular and well-maintained trail. On the first two mile stretch, we saw Bear Lake, Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake. How incredible to see so many alpine lakes in such a short distance, with the Continental Divide visible almost all the while! There are definitely tons of opportunities for great photographs of stunning scenery all along the way.
The rest of the hike from Emerald Lake to Pool of Jade is off trail – rock scrambling all the way. We rock hopped around the south side of the lake (almost to, but not as far as the creek) to a steep area of rocks and boulders. We headed up the rock, and at the top, we headed west into Tyndall Gorge. It was beautiful, with Halletts Peak on the left and Flattop Mountain on the right. Occassionally we saw short sections of trail, which are access trails to technical rock climbing areas on Hallet’s Peak. We saw two climbers and watched them for a bit.
As we rock hopped, we kept expecting to see the Pool of Jade any minute, but there is a series of "false summits" that you must pass before finally reaching the pool. Pool is definitely an accurate term for it…. a tiny, green pool surrounded by rocks that are bigger than the actual body of water. But we admired it for being cute and modest, and immediately stretched out next to it for a snack and to enjoy the scenery. We had the whole place to ourselves – we saw only a few hikers looking down on us from Flattop Mountain. Below the summit of the Coninental Divide was a rock wall which was the end of the Tyndall Gorge and we saw what remains of the Tyndall Glacier. After our solitude, we rock hopped back toward Emerald Lake, staying farther north than we had on the way in. On this side of the gorge, we hiked along Tyndall Creek. As we approached Emerald Lake again, we missed the rocky area that we had come up, and had a very scary steep descent. But we survived and made our way back out, satisfied with a challenging and interesting hike.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on March 23, 2002
To backpack at Rocky Mountain National Park, you will need to get a permit from the Backcountry Office, which is located at the main Visitor Center on Highway 36. In my Overview you will find an internet link to backcountry permit information. There are 4 backcountry campsites at Thunder Lake, which is a great base camp for hikes to Mount Alice, Tanima Peak, and Lion Lakes (to read about these, see my additional Thunder Lake journal entries.)
This is my top choice for a backpacking at Rocky. It is located in Wild Basin, a lesser used area of the park, which is reached by driving south from Estes Park on Highway 7 about 11 miles, then turning right (west) following the signs to Wild Basin. The primary attraction to Wild Basin is hiking. You will not need to deal with a mass of car tourists, as the road to Wild Basin is only 2 miles long - dirt, narrow, potholed - and doesn’t lead to anywhere except some trailheads. Heavenly! You will want to park at the end of the road. Go early to be sure to get a parking spot.
The hike is mostly forested until you reach Thunder Lake. In the first 3 miles of hiking along the North St. Vrain Creek, you will pass Copeland Falls (very small), Calypso Cascades, and Ouzel Falls. Ouzel Falls is impressive – be sure to follow one of the small footpaths to get a closer look. About a half mile after Ouzel Falls, you will come to a trail junction. You will stay right to go to Thunder Lake (the junction is signed). From this point on you will climb steadily and it will seem longer than it is. I once hiked this with a friend who had little hiking experience. She was giving me very harsh looks along this whole stretch. After a while she didn’t believe my reassurances of "Not much further now!" and I think if she wasn’t so tired, she would have kicked my butt right there. Good thing we were closer to the lake now than we were to the trailhead, so she kept going. There is one other trail junction to Lion Lakes, at which you will stay left (also well-signed).
When you arrive at Thunder Lake, you will forget all previous discomfort. From the east side of the lake looking west, you will see alpine meadows and wildflowers on the east. There is a log cabin (used by rangers – not open to the public) on the north side, and on the south and west are jagged rocky mountains, including the Continental Divide. If the winds are calm, this spectaclar scenery will be reflected off the mirror-like surface of Thunder Lake, a pristine alpine santuary.
Using Thunder Lake as a base camp, there are some great hikes you can do up onto the Continental Divide by way of Boulder-Grand Pass. The pass is so named because it is on the line between Boulder County and Grand County. As you look up to the Divide, the peak to the left is Tanima Peak, the one on the right is Mount Alice, and Boulder-Grand Pass is the low spot between them. To reach the pass, you will follow an unmaintained trail around the north side of Thunder Lake. On the west side of the lake, the faint trail will continue through alpine meadows and rocky areas, all the while gaining elevation and challenging your legs and lungs. You will eventually get to a small lake called Lake of Many Winds, a scenic beauty lined with boulders. Some maps show this lake with a name, and others show it unnamed.
Lake of Many Winds is directly below Boulder-Grand Pass. As you look up, you will see a snowfield. Ascend the pass to the right of the snowfield, up a narrow rock chute. I have tried other ways up, but this one was the best. When you get to the top, you will seem to be on top of the world. Breathtaking scenery is seen on all sides. Looking down to the west, you will see a series of lakes – instead of using Thunder Lake as a base camp, some folks opt to carry all their gear over the pass, and then descend to these lakes, where they will pick up the East Inlet trail. They spend the night along the East Inlet trail, and eventually exit near the town of Grand Lake. The only challenge of doing this is arranging transportation – a time consuming affair.
On the pass, delicate alpine tundra is underfoot – tiny grasses and flowers clinging to the ground to protect themselves from the wind. You can look down to the east and see Thunder Lake shining back up at you. From here you can summit two different peaks. To the south is Tanima Peak and is the easiest one to reach. It is fairly straighforward to get to the top – I think it took me less than 30 minutes. From the top was a great view of Long’s Peak and Mount Meeker. Because Mount Meeker is closer, it will appear larger than Long’s Peak. But in fact, Long’s Peak is the highest in the park at 14, 255 feet. Tanima Peak is named for a Camanche Indian Chief. Tanima (meaning liver-eaters) is also the name of a tribe, one of the 13 tribes of Comanches. You will also be rewarded with view to the south – where there are endless peaks and pristine lakes. As your view of Rocky Mountain National Park ends, you will continue your gaze into the Indian Peak Wilderness.
If you go north from Boulder-Grand Pass, it is a slightly longer ascent than Tanima Peak to the top of Mount Alice. The summit of Mount Alice is jagged and rocky – it is actually hard to decide where the true summit is. We found it after a couple tries, and knew we were in the right spot when we found a container with a hiker register. Summit registers, where they exist, are maintained by the Colorado Mountain Club, a group of local hikers. From Mount Alice, you can get a great view of Chief’s Head peak, named for it’s resemblance to the profile of an Indian’s head.
You can descend Mount Alice the same way you came up, or you can go down via the north side. This option is a very long and arduous descent – so make sure if you choose to do this, you are prepared for a long day. We did this option, followed immediately by hiking 7 miles out to the trailhead – I do not recommend this. I have never been so tired in my life (but since I’m a park ranger, you can’t tell anyone that I said this!). From the top of Alice you will be able to see your goal – a ridge that extends from lower down on Alice to the north, then turns east and heads toward Lion Lakes.
The descent on the north side of Alice is steeper and rockier than the south side. We were often hand over foot on the way down. Once we hit the ridge, it was easier hiking. There is no trail, so be sure to make an effort to step on rock instead of the fragile tundra. When we had gone as far on the ridge as we could, we looked down to Lion Lakes. We took a compass bearing and headed down. The off trail hiking was a little more challenging as we approached the lakes, as the ground was often swampy. Lion Lakes were picturesque. One of them had a wall of ice hanging on one side of the lake. When the sun hit it, the ice glowed a cool turquoise blue color. The sun was melting some of the ice, and it was falling like a miniature waterfall into the lake. Also, at the same time we were looking at a wall of ice, we were smelling fragrent wildflowers and grasses on the edge of the lake. Strange and magical.
From Lion Lakes, there is a trail that eventually hooks up with the Thunder Lake trail again. But to save miles, we went cross country back to Thunder Lake. For this section, I can offer no orienteering advice. We arrived only by trusting a park ranger friend that was more familiar with the area than we were. This whole area is so great – beauty and solitude around every turn. Don’t miss it!
This trip starts at the Bear Lake trailhead, then it is 4.4 miles and 2849 feet elevation gain to the top of Flattop Mountain on the Continental Divide. There are a couple of trail junctions, but they all have signs that are easy to follow. Getting to the top of Flattop (12,324 feet) is very straightforward – you will first spend some time in the forest before the views open up. When I got up to the top, I felt like I was on top of the world. And the flat top (hence the name) had gently rolling hills, with grass, flowers, and rock – my husband said it reminded him of Scotland. Don’t spend time trying to find the "true summit" of Flattop Mountain. The top is flat and the views are good anywhere on the top.
This was my first backpacking trip ever in my life. So while the views were spectacular, I was definitely suffering. I wasn’t used to carrying all that stuff on my back!! I thought my lungs were going to explode. But once at the top, I felt a great sense of accomplishment - besides, it’s all downhill from here, right? Well, it was, but I didn’t know at the time of my life that going downhill is often just as difficult as going uphill. Plus, from the top we discovered we were about to be hit with a thunderstorm that we had not seen coming from down below. Yikes! NOT a good spot to be in lightning.
We were headed down the opposite (west) side of Flattop to a campsite called the July Campsite. It was just below treeline – and we definitely wanted to get down and set up our tent before it was raining too hard! We stuggled down as fast as our aching knees would take us, and got to our site just in time. We set up the tent and, taking shelter from the rain, had a nice nap. Later, we had dinner – a dry but FREEZING cold endeavor. We were still over 10,000 feet – our sleeping bags were not great, so we had the coldest night of our lives. If you do this, bring a really warm bag!! The next day was warmer, and we had a pleasant hike out the North Inlet trail to the trailhead near the town of Grand Lake. The hardest part of this one-way backpack trip is negotiating a ride back to the east side of the park.
Expect hot and dry conditions on you hike up Twin Sisters (11,428 feet). You will climb steadily for 3.7 miles and gain 2338 feet in elevation. Carry all of the water that you will need – there are no water sources. I had heard stories about Twin Sisters being "a grind" and that it isn’t the greatest hike. I disagree. True, you grind uphill through the woods with very few views for quite a while, but I enjoy the forest. And knowing that I would eventually get the views at the top prodded me to continue up happily. The closer I got to the top, the smaller and more twisted the trees became, and rock outcroppings were more frequent. The twisted trees are called "krumholtz" and are made by the fierce winter winds which cause the trees to hug and ground and make them misshapen.
At the top of Twin Sisters, I was rewarded with views to the west of Long’s Peak, the highest peak in the Park at 14,255 feet, and it’s sister peak Mount Meeker. To the north I saw almost the entire Estes Valley. To the east and north were the lower forested peaks and valleys of Arapahoe-Roosevelt National Forest. It was quite windy the day we were there, so we crawled around in the rocks until we found a sunny and wind-sheltered spot for lunch. After a pleasant lunch we headed back down the trail.
You should summit Twin Sisters and head back down to treeline as early in the day as possible. The peak is notorious for afternoon lightening storms. I recall an incident from a couple years ago, when an older gentleman climbed to the top of Twin Sisters with his wife and friends, and at the top promptly had a heart attack. While his situation had nothing to do with lightning, a lightening storm started shortly thereafter during rescue operations. One ranger made it to the top and took over CPR from the wife. Another ranger and paramedic were headed up. After a very close lightning strike, the Incident Commander found that he could no longer reach the ranger and paramedic by radio. More rescuers were sent to locate them. Soon after, the ranger called in and said that he thought he had been struck by lightning, and he didn’t know where he was. The two were located unharmed, except for a blown eardrum. But they were badly shaken, as was the ranger at the top, who was surrounded by lightning strikes while performing CPR, with no reinforcements on the way.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on March 23, 2002
Before Rocky Mountain National Park existed, there were a number of privately owned dams and reservoirs established inside what is now the boundary. After the Park was created, a number of the dams remained but were not maintained well. One example of this is the Lawn Lake reservoir and dam, which was 79 years old when is broke on July 15, 1982. A huge wall of water swept down Roaring River and Fall River, flooding the town of Estes Park and killing three people. From the road, the greatest evidence of this flood is a giant outwash fan, or alluvial fan, just west of the Lawn Lake trailhead. The alluvial fan is made of rock, dam remnants, and debris that was washed down the valley by the water. Huge boulders weighing tons were transferred miles by the force of the flood.
This hike starts out with switchbacks and elevation gain near the road. Before long, you will come to a trail junction to Ypsilon Lake – stay right at the junction. After this point, the trail follows the Roaring River for a number of miles. Along this stretch, you will see further destruction from the tragic flood. The banks of the Roaring River were denuded and destroyed by the flood, and have remained unstable since that time. Erosion continues to eat away at the once thriving riparian area. This also makes for a dangerous area – it is best to stay well away from the steep edges, as they are undercut and could collapse at any time.
After hiking for a while near the river, in an otherwise scenic forested valley, there are a couple more switchbacks and another trail junction with the Black Canyon Trail. Stay left to go to Lawn Lake, which is only another ½ mile from this point. This last stretch of trail is in a very scenic basin in the heart of the Mummy Range. The main peaks you will see are Mummy Mountain, Hagues Peak, and Fairchild Mountain. Lawn Lake is set with a backdrop of Fairchild and Hagues, and of course the beautiful blue Colorado sky. When you arrive at Lawn Lake, you will find that when the water level dropped after the dam broke, sandy beaches were left behind. This is not naturally occuring, so you will not find the beaches at most of the other alpine lakes in the Park.
If you are feeling extremely ambitious, you can continue on past Lawn Lake to see other fantastic sights. Better yet, backpack in to Lawn Lake and use it for a base camp to explore the Mummy Range area. Another 1.5 miles past Lawn is Crystal Lakes, located in a fantastic cirque on the side of Fairchild Mountain. You can also summit either Fairchild or Hagues by hiking past the junction for Crystal Lakes and going to the saddle between the two peaks.
Mount Chiquita (elevation 13,069ft) is another 0.9 miles from the summit of Mount Chapin.
Ypsilon Mountain (elevation 13,514 feet) is another 1.1 miles from the summit of Mount Chiquita.
This is my absolute favorite hike at Rocky Mountain National Park for a few reasons. First, very few people take this hike, so solitude abounds. The access to the trailhead is up a narrow, winding, one-way, dirt road called Old Fall River Road, built in the 1930’s by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp). Recreational vehicles cannot make it up this road, but passenger vehicles can. Once you arrive at the trailhead (6 miles or so), there are only maybe 15 parking spots. Go very early to get a spot. Old Fall River Road does not open for the season until at least July 4 – but you wouldn’t want to be up on these peaks before then anyway.
The other reason that this is my favorite hike is that it offers access to treeline and alpine tundra within the first mile – major gain for minimal pain! You can summit a 12,500 foot peak, a 13,000 foot peak, and a 13,500 foot peak all in one day! And each has an astounding 360 degree view of multiple mountain ranges and Rocky Mountain National Park
The hike starts on Chapin Creek Trail. After a short way, there is a sign that says "Mount Chapin" with an arrow pointing to the right. The Mount Chapin trail is an "unimproved" trail, which just means that it is smaller and fainter than regular trails, but still easy to follow. This part is steep - just remember that it will be worth it! Once you get above treeline, you will see a large rocky hill on your right, or south. This is Mount Chapin. Go off trail (taking care to try to step on rock rather than plants), and trudge your way to the summit of Chapin. There are actually two summits, and east and a west. Try to angle your way up so that you bypass the west one and end up on the east one. On the south side of Chapin are spectacular dropoffs, looking down on jagged rock spires, and great views. I often see elk lounging on Mount Chapin.
From the summit of Chapin, head down about 400 feet to the saddle between Chapin and Chiquita, then up another 1000 feet to the summit of Chiquita. From Chiquita, it is another drop to a saddle, and then up to Ypsilon Mountain. This is easy to navigate and will all be easy to see when you get up there. From Ypsilon, you can look down on Ypsilon Lake, and Spectacle Lakes. I have always seen many marmots (like a big woodchuck) and pikas (like hamsters) living in the rocks on these peaks. The views are unmatched, in my opinion, and the peacefulness is perfect.
From the trailhead, take the main trail a short distance until you see a sign for the North Boundary Trail, which you will follow north for 1.5 miles. It goes up to to a small saddle. From the saddle there is a steeper descent to West Creek. When we went down this north side, we saw a dazzling display of wildflowers, including numerous Fairy Slippers, a kind of wild orchid (see photo). After you cross the creek, a side trail to the west (left) will take you another half mile to West Creek Falls. The two-tier falls are small, but beautiful and secluded. This was one of the nicest, most peaceful spots that I have been to at Rocky.
Wanting to hike farther, we spontaneously decided to head off trail up Sheep Mountain, directly to the south. We had no idea what to expect, which made the idea extra appealing. First we crossed the creek on a log, then there was a VERY steep (but short) section that we had to get up. We were literally hand over foot, clinging deperately to shrubs and rocks, hoping they all stayed in place! After that steepest bit, the ascent was more gradual. We couldn’t see the top of the peak, but figured we couldn’t go wrong as long as we kept going uphill (to the dismay of our lungs and legs). A couple times we climbed up on some rock outcroppings for a better view, and we able to keep ourselves pretty much on track. Some of the way was more open, and other spots were either swampy or very thick with vegetation. We didn’t get to the true summit of Sheep Mountain (and saw no sheep), but we did get to the top of a lower summit to the west of the true summit.
From this summit we were able to see a high rock outcrop below and southwest that we knew was the location of Bridal Veil Falls. So we took a compass bearing and headed toward it. This route took up through gorgeous aspen stands and tall grasses. We came out just above Bridal Veil Falls, which we admired for a while, before taking the trail 3 miles through meadows back to the trailhead.
I do not know the total distance of the hike - it was 5 miles on trail, plus the cross country over Sheep Mountain. It was challenging and the ability to route-find and use a topographic map is essential.
The name Lumpy Ridge comes from an Arapaho name that means Little Lumps. Two prominent features of Lumpy Ridge are the Needles, to the northwest, and Twin Owls, to the southeast. The area is extremely popular with rock climbers. Also, the area is home to a number of raptors.
From the trailhead, hike east toward Gem Lake (1.8 miles, 910 feet elevation gain). Gem Lake is disappointing for some. At only 0.2 acres in size, it is more of a stagnant pond than a lake. I think it is cute, with cool rock formations and good views, if you can overlook it’s modest size. It is one of the only lakes in the Park not formed by glaciers, and it has no inlet or outlet. It is more of a rain catch basin, deep enough to hold water all year round. The one thing I was disappointed about was that this is one of the problem spots for people feeding wildlife, a huge NO-NO in my book. I didn’t like the squirrels and birds begging while I was trying to enjoy the view. Please do not add to this problem!
If you continue past Gem Lake, you can circle around Lumpy Ridge. Stay left at all trail junctions except one (a 2 mile round trip side hike about 1 mile past Gem Lake to Balanced Rock – I have not been there) You will go down to the Cow Creek trail, which is on the back side of Lumpy Ridge. This is a beautiful meadow area with ridges on both sides. When you get around to the west side of Lumpy, the hike is mostly in the woods, with fewer views but cooler from the shade. As you come around the west side for the final stretch, you will again have meadows to your right, the rock formations of Lumpy Ridge to your left, and an expansive view of McGregor Ranch and surrounding peaks. This is my favorite view of the hike. This is an all around good h ke with plenty of variety and fewer people than the rest of the Park.
This is another hike that I took because I liked the name – Sky Pond. It is heavenly sounding. What I found was that getting there was as wonderful as being there – the way filled with more lakes, streams, and waterfalls - making this an all around fantastic hike!
Park at the Glacier Gorge parking area/trailhead, which is on Bear Lake Road just shy of the Bear Lake Parking area. Go very early to get a parking spot, or else you have two other alternatives. You can park at Bear Lake parking area, and walk about 10 minutes down to the Glacier Gorge trailhead. Or you can park at the shuttle bus parking area that is on the way, and take the free shuttle bus to the trailhead.
After only about ½ mile of hiking uphill, you will get to Alberta Falls, an impressive falls, especially in the spring when water flow is high.
After the falls, you will again gain elevation. After a trail junction (stay right), the trail will flatten and you will see Glacier Knobs (right side), and a pretty small valley (left). A three way trail junction will have signs to Mills Lake, The Loch, and Bear Lake - take the middle one to The Loch. There are a couple switchbacks, but not too steep. As you approach the Loch, prepare to feast your eyes on a supreme alpine lake, surrounded by colorful patches of wildflowers nestled in gray rock, and on the far side of the lake a steep ridge, which is the north end of Thatchtop Mountain. A very dramatic and inspiring scene.
The trip is 2.7 miles so far, with 940 feet elevation gain. Continue along the trail, which will continue along Icy Brook. You will go through some marshy spots and around some impressive boulders. The day I went I saw the biggest fattest marmot (like a big woodchuck) sunning itself on a rock. After about 1.3 miles, you will get to Timberline Falls, a majestic three tier beauty. The day I was there, the sun was hitting the falls perfectly, with "hanging gardens" growing around it.
At this point, the trail seems to disappear. To go on, climb up the right side of the waterfall, taking care to avoid wet spots that might be slippery. Come on, adventure seekers! After you climb up the falls, you will be in a bowl surrounded by Thatchtop Mountain, Powell Peak, Taylor Glacier, and Taylor Peak, just below the Continental Divide. Lake of Glass is just near the top of the falls, but it is another ½ mile or so to Sky Pond. After leaving the masses behind at The Loch, and the rest staring with mouths agape as they watch you climb up the side of Timberline Falls, you will be on top of the world to enjoy these peacful lakes in the clouds.
While the Upper Beaver Meadows Trailhead is easy to find, locating the Ute Trailhead is a little confusing. Coming from the east, it is on Trail Ridge Road, past Rainbow Curve about 2 miles on the left side of the road. It is not really a trailhead – just a narrow strip of gravel on the side of the road. There is not an obvious trailhead sign, but I think there is a small wooden sign that says Ute Trail on it. Otherwise, you will be able to see a trail heading off into the tundra. It is the only trail in the vicinity, so you should be able to get the correct spot. If you get to Forest Canyon Overlook, you have gone too far.
Because the Ute Trail is a one-way hike, you will need to either:
1) have two cars – leave one at the ending point, then drive the other to the starting point, or
2) park at the ending point and try to convince someone to drive you to the starting point, which is on Trail Ridge Road (a scenic drive done by many, so you should have plenty of opportunity to get a ride).
This trail has many great points – first, you start significantly higher than you end, so it is mostly a DOWNHILL hike, the best kind. Next, you start in alpine tundra, with majestic view all around – and eventually get to explore the forests below, so the best of both worlds.
The trail starts out fairly level, with just a tiny bit of up an down as you work your way across a large alpine tundra ridge called Tombstone Ridge. As you are hiking, you will see interesting rock outcropping all around, and Long’s Peak will dominate your view to the south. There are plenty of elk around, and marmots. Watch closely for a chance to see bighorn sheep. Dropping directly to your right is Forest Canyon, a trailless wild canyon rarely explored due to it’s overgrown sides and swampy bottom.
As you approach the edge of the ridge, you will go through 11,484 foot Timberline Pass before dropping steeply into Windy Gulch. Windy Gulch is filled with flowering meadows and trickling creeks. Your knees will not thank you but your eyes will. At the bottom of Windy Gulch, a trail junction will direct you to Upper Beaver Meadows. When you take this trail, you will then drop into the forest at the base of Beaver Mountain. The forests of Rocky Mountain National Park are cushioned with pine needles, and dense and varied from so many years of fire suppression. You will eventually emerge into meadows again as you end your hike.
1. Map and Compass – know how to use them!
2. Flashlight/headlamp and extra batteries
3. Extra food and water – I always bring water purification tablets, which only weigh about an ounce. I keep a couple Power Bars in my pack – I use these because I don’t like them, so I won’t be tempted to eat them during a non-emergency situation.
4. Extra clothes – At minimum, I bring silk long underwear, hat and mittens – all very light items. Number one heat loss is through the head, number two is through the hands. I pack other extra clothing as needed. Usually I have a fleece jacket, and one of those really cheap rain ponchos (weighs about an ounce).
5. Sunglasses and sunscreen
6. Waterproof matches
7. Firestarter – a good one is cotton balls, saturated in patroleum jelly, then stored in an empty film container. Very light and good firestarter.
8. First Aid Supplies
9. Pocket knife
10. Emergency shelter – I keep one of those silver emergency blankets, but I’d really like to get a lightweight bivy sack, when I have some extra money.
Other valuable information to have before heading into the backcountry is how to use the wilderness responsibly. Check out Leave No Trace, which is a non-profit organization that preaches outdoor ethics. Great info! The six main concepts of Leave No Trace are:
1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
3. Pack It In, Pack It Out
4. Properly Dispose of What You Can’t Pack Out
5. Leave What You Find
6. Minimize Use and Impacts of Fire
Their web site elaborates on each of these.
A couple of other notes:
Mountain Bikes and pets are not allowed on trails in National Parks. They are allowed on National Forest land, though – ask a ranger for suggestions if you want to bike or hike with your dog.
Don’t try to hike up to high elevations on your first day at Rocky. Most people feel the effects of the elevation even just while in the town of Estes Park, which is at 7500 feet. They may be dehydrated, have a headache, feel very tired, and possibly nauseous. Hiking up to 12,000 feet right away will kick your butt, and could potentially be dangerous. Instead, hang out in Estes Park and the lower Visitor Centers of Rocky for a bit. Take some scenic drives down lower, maybe to Bear Lake. Then you can venture up to Alpine Visitor Center (at about 12,000 feet). After about 2 days doing these things, and possibly a short hike or two at lower elevation (below 10,000 feet), then head UP UP UP! Two serious medical conditions cause by high elevation that some people develop (even those who are otherwise perfectly healthy) are HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) and HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema). If you have trouble breathing, feel chest pain, or head pain – go down low as soon as possible! Don’t mess around with these – they can kill you! They are not super common, but it is good to be aware of them. They are more of a concern above 14,000 feet.
Even if it is 80 degrees when you start hiking, bring along a warm jacket and a hat and mittens. You will likely need them when you get up high. Also, keep hypothermia at bay by wearing synthetic clothing. Sweat will get your cotton clothing wet, and cotton does not dry quickly, so you may end up being wet and COLD when you get up high. Synthetic materials dry almost as fast as they get wet, keeping you much warmer.
Port Angeles, Washington