FrontRangeLiving.com -> Outdoors -> Untrammeled RMNP
ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK: Lesser-traveled Trails
When I first came to Colorado, I avoided Rocky Mountain National Park, even
though it was just up the road from Boulder. It was too crowded and I thought
the scenery was ho-hum, especially compared to other parts of the state, such as
the San Juans or the mountains around Aspen. I admit it; I was a snob.
But over the years, its closeness (and the joy of avoiding the I-70 and 285
corridors) started drawing me up, and I found another good reason to hike the
national park: its wildness. Because itís under the protection of the U.S.
National Park Service, the park is devoid of ranchettes, gas stations, grocery
stores, mining claims, mountain bikers and other indications of civilization
that can ruin the wilderness experience in the rest of Colorado. What it does is
have is an abundance of wildlife that greets you around each turn: elk in the
meadows or on the tundra, moose (on the west side of the park) peeking out from
willow bushes, marmots sunning themselves on boulders.
One fall, I was hiking the Cub Lake trail. It was the season for elk bugling,
for sightseers to line up their cars along the road through Moraine Park and
train their binoculars on the huge elk herds in the meadow. Watching the males
lift their heads and "bugle" their claims to territory is a wildlife
experience that should not be missed. Itís like hearing the howl of a coyote,
something that gives you goose bumps--a link to wildness. I hoped to join the
elk watchers after my hike, but it proved unnecessary. As I was coming back down
the trail in the late afternoon, I discovered that the elk herd had come to meóand
a few other hikers.
We stood silent, dumbfounded, and a little nervous, as elk heading down to
the valley walked around us. We tried to stay out of their way, especially the
rambunctious young males, but they didnít really care about us. They just
wanted to eat the grasses, and the males wanted to show off a bit. Holding our
breaths, we watched them eat, their dark brown fur melding into the brown
grasses, heard the young ones call to their mothers--the first time I had heard
their high-pitched cries--and saw the bulls raise their huge antlered heads and
make a sound that sends chills down your spine.
Not every hike in the park has been that fortuitous, but Iíve managed to
stumble across more wildlife in the park than just about any place in Colorado.
Partly because the animals are protected in the park, they have lost some fear
of humans and allow us to get closer.
Itís true that the trails in the park can be crowded, but most people tend
to congregate at a few spots, most notably the Bear Lake trails. I would hazard
a guess that a lot of touristsí wilderness experience consists of a short walk
around Bear Lake. Then itís back to Estes for some saltwater taffy. There are other parts of the park, not as well known, where the trails arenít packed,
especially if you hike more than a half mile or so back.
Gem Lake Trail is one of those. More of a localsí favorite right
outside of Estes Parkóand the main part of the park, so you donít pay an
entrance fee. Itís a favorite area for climbers in an area to the north of
Estes known as Twin Owls because of a rock formation that resembles two owls.
Unlike the rest of RMNP, where glaciers carved the valleys and mountains, the
rocks in the Twin Owls area were formed by a slower and gentler process of rain
and wind. A world unto itself, these strangely shaped rock formations will lend
themselves to anthropomorphizing. One of the more famous is Paul Bunyanís
shoe, which sits about half way up the trail on a rocky platform by itself, as
if the park service had set up this geologic display just to amuse (and scare?)
Gem Lake can be accessed from two trails, one behind McGregor Ranch. This old
homestead is open to the public and well worth a visit to experience what
farming life was like 100 years ago. From this route you can look back down on
the ranch, which sits in a beautiful valley. The beginning of the other trail is
equally lovely, passing groves of aspen intermingled with red boulders. The
trails meet up among the ponderosa pines, and, after a short while, turn the
corner and get your first view of rocky landscape. To enter it, wander through a
maze of boulders and aspen trees so perfectly and delicately grouped that you
have to wonder if Paul Bunyanís gardening aunt had a hand in this.
From there, the trail heads up, with ever better views of the surrounding
mountains, into a valley full of curious and large rock formations. No matter
your intentions, itís hard to avoid seeing faces and animal forms. Thereís
one particularly large snail sitting on top of the opposite mountain thatís
never failed to capture my attention. This is a great trail for kids because
theyíll see faces and forms in the rocks that adults might be too embarrassed
to admit seeing.
(Note to thrill seekers: Below the lake is an open-air outhouse with what has
to be one of the best views seen while sitting on a toilet.)
As you hike up the trail, a valley of rocks to one side, a cliff wall soars
hundreds of feet up on the other side. I once watched a bevy of blackbirds take
off from the top of this cliff, doing increasingly complex maneuversóin one
case two birds flew together, belly to belly, one upside downó as though they
were participating in an extreme flying competition. At the lake, swallows dart
in and out of the rocks and skim over the water.
Gem Lake is not your typical alpine lake, surrounded by steep, snow-covered
mountains. Instead, itís protected on all sides by steep rock walls, so it
feels like a hidden, peaceful enclave, far away from the noisy clutter of Estes
Park, which sits below. This lake has its own quiet pleasures: a sandy beach and
shallow water, one shoreline fringed with cattails and rock walls that cast
golden reflections as well as echoing voices. Sit back and relax on the beach,
wade in the clear, cool waters, and hear your voice come back at you when you
yell at your kids to get down from the rocks.
Access: Two trailheads, one past McGregor Ranch, north of Estes Park,
which has limited parking, and from another three-quarters of mile farther down
the road past the turnoff for the ranch. About a 2-mile hike (depending on which
parking lot you start from).
Another trailhead outside of the main part of
the park is Wild Basin,
north of Allenspark. The main trail follows the North St. Vrain Creek up to
Calypso Cascades named, not for a dance done at night by lonely mountaineers,
but for the calypso orchid, a small delicate flower that blooms in June and
grows in dark, secretive places around the falls. Another mile up the trail is
Ouzel Falls (named for the water ouzel, a black bird that is fond of swimming
under water), where water spills over rocks and crashes onto the rocks below. On
a hot day, itís heavenly to stand near the falls and feel the cold spray.
Unfortunately parking is limited at the trailhead, especially on summer
weekends. If the parking lot is full, another option is the Finch Lake Trail,
which is about a mile closer to the park entrance and to more parking. Although
Finch Lake is 4.5 miles up the trail, I aim for a shorter destination, an aspen
forest, about 1.5 miles up. The first part of the trail hugs the side of the
mountain through a dense forest with a few aspens thrown in here to lighten the
trail. Through the trees are glimpses of Mount Meeker, which looms larger the
higher you get, with its broad flanks of rock fields that look almost metallic.
It seems a harsh view and terrain until you get to the top and turn the corner
onto a pleasant, sunny aspen forest. Suddenly the mood changes, as it always
does among the white barked trunks and fluttering leaves of Populus
tremuloides. The aspen forest, with a few ponderosas, continues for about
another half mile to a turnoff for a trail down to Allenspark. From here, the
Finch Lake Trail continues upward through pines.
Access: North of Allenspark on Hwy.7, turn left at sign for Wild Basin.
Calypso Cascades: is 1.8 miles from the trailhead, and Ouzel Falls is: 2.7
miles. Park admission charged.
Itís difficult to find aspen groves in the park, mostly because pine trees
werenít cut down for mining, which opened the hillsides to aspens, a
transition species. But one trail is notable for its aspens, which sprang up
after logging operations removed the original fir trees. The Mill Creek Basin
trail doesnít look like much to start out with, through an open, almost
treeless meadow, but soon it follows a small creek up through an aspen
forest. Itís a pleasant walk, especially on a hot day, and a mile or so above
the trailhead, the land flattens out somewhat, and youíre suddenly in a
cathedral of tall aspens, soothed and refreshed by the sound of their leaves in
Access: The trail starts from Hallowell Park, a valley off the Bear Lake
Road, and climbs 1-Ĺ miles up to the aspen basin. From there, you can continue
another mile up to Bierstadt Lake.
Another trail that doesnít look promising at the trailhead is Mount
Chapin, which starts out steeply in a dense and dark pine forest. But after
a quarter-mile or so, the trail comes out on the tundra, into sunlight and
wide-open high spaces. Although the park is famous for Trail Ridge Road, one of
the highest roads in North America, a lot of the trails along the road tend to
be crowded. The Mount Chapin trail is one of the few tundra hikes thatís off
the beaten path. To get there, take Fall River Road, the original road through
the park, which is now a one-way (up) dirt road.
The beginning of the trail is a steep, rocky climb to a place where the land
levels out enough to form a small basin of ponds fringed with green sedges,
rocky hillocks, and a few bunches of fir trees, stunted and curved from the
incessant strong winds. After winding through this mountain garden, the trail
opens up into true tundra: no trees, no ponds, the only vegetation a few willow
bushes. Other than that, itís an open expanse looking across the deep valley
to the mountains on the other side. It feels like youíre eye level with the
clouds. Aside from being in an airplane, itís as close as youíll get to the
Up here, above 10,000 feet, the summer season is short, and June is when most
of the flowers bloom. You have to look hard to see them; the harsh conditions at
this altitude force most plants to stay low, but youíll be rewarded. Itís
like looking for small gems, bits of color amid the short grass carpet and
boulders: the purple sky pilot, taller and showier than most tundra plants; the
purple alpine forget-me-not, a cousin to the one planted in gardens, but hugging
the ground; the pink rose crown, looking like a large clover; alpine phlox, a
whitish-pink flower that can carpet the ground in places, along with moss
campion; and, my favorite, the alpine sunflower, only two or three inches high
but with a yellow flowerhead that brightens even the darkest day. These are
flowers best appreciated on your hands and knees, up close, which is also a good
idea for avoiding the strong (and often cold) winds at this altitude.
Up here thereís a good chance of seeing marmots, a member of the squirrel
family, up to two feet in length and rotund, often seen basking on boulders,
where they can blend in to the rock face. Youíll probably hear the pika, a
small guinea-pig size animal, before you see it. This member of the rabbit
family hangs out among the rocks, where it darts in and out, carrying bundles of
grass, shrilly whistling to other pikas.
Access: Take Fall River Road, which starts in Horseshoe Park, 6.5 miles up
to a switchback, where youíll see a sign on the right for Chapin Mountain and
usually a few other cars parked here.
The drive up the narrow Fall River Road is worth a trip, in itself,
because the one-way traffic lets you concentrate on the wildlife and landscape,
instead of traffic. The road also makes an excellent hiking trail, especially
before the pass opens (usually in July) and closes (usually October). The lower
parts meander through dense forests with the creek burbling alongside, and this
is a great opportunity to enjoy the popular Chasm Falls. As you get higher, the
views are magnificent: looking back down (east) toward Horseshoe Park, across
the valley to the steep slopes where huge rock slides are evident, and to the
west, where a large glacial cirque marks the top of the pass.
Finally, no trip to the park is complete without a hike to an alpine lake. Glacier
Gorge is only slightly less crowded than the Bear Lake area, but the access
to some of the most spectacular high mountain lakes is worth the crowds.
Besides, most people on this trail only get as far as Albertís Falls, about a
half mile up, and miss the rugged mountains beyond. About a mile up the trail
from the Glacier Gorge parking lot is a steeply walled granite basin that leads
to several alpine lakes. Another half-mile or so up through this valley the
trail splits, with one trail going to Mills Lake (named for Enos Mills, the
founder of the park) and another to The Loch.
Itís a clamber along and over mountain streams, through dense forests and
into rocky, wild basins, where turquoise blue lakes are surrounded by steep
mountains of granite, with waterfalls that tumble hundreds of feet, and patches
of snow and ice that linger in the mountain crevices well into August. These are
the places that make you want to yodel or kneel down in reverence;
destinations that make the drive through a crowded Estes Park, behind
slow-moving tourists, and a long hard climb worth it.
Access: The Loch is 2.7 miles from the Glacier Gorge parking lot, and
Mills Lake is 2.5 miles. Because the Glacier Gorge parking lot is small, the
best deal is to take the Bear Lake shuttle. In fact, this summer, you have no
choice, as the Park Service is widening the road to Bear Lake, and no cars are
allowed past Sprague Lake May 14 through Oct. 31. Shuttle pickups are every 30
Helpful websites: www.nps.gov/romo
All photos by Kathy Kaiser