This trip was designed to get us into the heart of the very popular Longs Group in Rocky Mountain National Park, in summer, while avoiding crowds.
Could it be done???
The main access to the group is the East Longs Trail. Because Longs Peak attracts big crowds in the summer - - which is when we’re there - - the trick was a matter of timing. We would use the East Longs Trail when the Longs hikers weren’t there, and avoid the Longs conga line (the “Longa Line”?).
So we decided to climb Mount Lady Washington. Because it’s a shorter hike than Longs, we could leave later than the Longs hikers do. That would miss the crowds. There’s a problem, of course. Because it’s a shorter hike, we’d be returning on the East Longs Trail at the same time as some of the Longs crowd.
To avoid the Longs returnees, we decided to make the trip a traverse. Instead of going out the East Longs Trail, we’d return by the North Longs Trail. This would mean using the West Slope of Lady Washington for our descent and then crossing Boulderfield.
We knew we’d hit people at Boulderfield, and we did. But we also hit the privies there, so the time spent among other people was not without its consolations. Other than the Boulderfield community, we crossed paths with only one other party on each leg of our trail. The plan worked: we bagged a peak in the Longs Group and avoided crowds while doing it.
Trailhead to Chasm Lake TrailWe got to the Longs trailhead about 5:00 am. No one else was there, so our strategy was working so far. How many had we missed? Over 60 people had already signed the trailhead register for Longs. The overwhelming majority of them had arrived close to 3:00 am, which is when the NPS recommends that you start. Two parties, with five people, had signed in for Meeker. No one had signed in for Lady Washington - - so far, so good!
We hit Goblins Forest in first light, which was cool. As we got above treeline, we had great morning views of the Longs Group to entertain us as we hiked up the slope. This is also where we saw our first people, a father-son party who were going to Chasm Lake. As we got higher and higher, the winds also increased steadily. When we arrived at Chasm Lake junction, it was already pretty windy, enough to slow our progress.
East Slope: The Surfboard of the Winds
The East Slope of Lady Washington is like the side of an Egyptian pyramid, a sloping triangle. Unlike a pyramid, it’s covered in boulders. Foster sends you left, up the ridge. But that was very windy, both cold and strong enough to slow our approach. So we swung right on the Longs Peak trail for a couple hundred yards and then headed up. We found it best to stay roughly in the middle of the triangle - - go too far left (south) and we would hit heavy winds, but go too far right (north) and we also hit heavy winds. There was a sweet spot in the middle where the wind was blowing at a comfortable level, and we just followed the lee zone up the slope.
The boulder-hopping on Lady Washington is a bit tedious but the last hundred yards or so of the peak becomes a more pleasant jaunt as the mountain flattens out. We enjoyed the views at the summit. However, it was a bit cold for August. When we got to the summit, the thermometer said high 40s. I’d guess that the winds were 30-35mph.
The next part of the plan was to descend via the West Slopes. This was easy and fast - - boulder hopping is more fun on the way down. We got to Boulderfield in mid-morning, and found a lot of people just hanging out there. We could never figure out exactly why they were there at that time of the day. A couple people were just hiking to Boulderfield and back. A few parties were camping there that night, and apparently they wanted to have their camps set up well before noon. We met only one person descending from a successful summit of Longs; we’d expected to see more.
Boulderfield to Bierstadt Trailhead
From Boulderfield, we headed down the Keyhole Trail to Granite Pass. We met a steady stream of people heading up to camp at Boulderfield. Clearly a complete person-avoidance strategy would require a different route that skips this stretch of trail. Following the west ridge of Lady Washington and then swinging under Longs and around (not through) Boulderfield, and then up and over Storm Peak might do the trick. But all in all, we were amused to meet people asking us, “You’re already coming back down?”
As the morning wore on, we started to see threatening clouds coming from the west. There seemed to be rain but not lightning on Longs, but not much was really happening at our elevation. We were below treeline by the time scattered raindrops hit us.
After Granite Pass, we saw only one party until we hit the Boulder Brook junction. We saw a family group there, and a solo hiker on the Boulder Brook trail.
The Boulder Brook trail ends at the Bear Lake road. There’s a sign for the Bierstadt trailhead, which is where you pick up the shuttle bus. That route is longer than the horse trail, and has perhaps 50 feet of unnecessary gain and loss. Take the flatter, and shorter, horse trail to the bus.
Other than Boulderfield, we saw only one party every few miles. For a heavily-traveled corner of the park, in August, we thought our crowd-avoidance strategy had worked pretty well.