OverviewSeeking solitude in Rocky Mountain National Park on a sunny Labor Day? Try Stones Peak. This massive mountain is surrounded by dense trailless forests. The only weakness in this armor is far enough from the trailheads that only a handful of people visit Stones Peak each year. It is hard to come up with an accurate estimate. While I found a summit register, I found no pen or pencil with it. The one entry I saw from this year spoke of success at the fifth attempt!
Stones Peak sits less than a mile to the east of the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park. Its huge bulk, which rises 3500 feet from the valley floor, can be seen from Trail Ridge Road and from many other places in the Park. The mountain sides are covered by talus, but the ridges that provide the most popular accesses to the summit feature good rock. On a map, Stones Peak looks roughly like a triangle. On the south side, it descends into Spruce Canyon, while the northeast and northwest sides are bordered by Forest Canyon and Hayden Gorge, respectively. The southwest corner is connected by a ridge to Sprague Mountain, on the Continental Divide.
Thanks to its position, Stones Peak affords excellent views on most of Rocky Mountain National Park: The Mummy Range and the Never Summers are quite close. From Hayden Spire to Terra Tomah, summits of the northern part of the Park can be seen from an unusual perspective. On the opposite side, on a clear day, the Indian Peaks can be made out. All this spectacle can be enjoyed in perfect solitude, but it must be earned.
I know of three routes to the top of Stones Peak. The most direct is from Spruce Lake and climbs the southeast ridge of "Stapps," an officially unnamed subsummit of 12,736 ft. As is often the case in this area, "Stapps" appears to be a coinage of Gerry Roach. The second route also starts from Spruce Lake, but goes up Spruce Canyon until treeline before turning north and reaching the saddle between Stones Peak and Sprague Mountain. This saddle can be reached also from Sprague, which in turn is about 9 miles from Bear Lake.
Getting ThereAccess to Stones Peak is usually from the east side of the Continental Divide, using one of two trailheads: The Fern Lake Trailhead or the Bear Lake Trailhead.
From Estes Park, drive to the Beaver Meadows entrance to the park. Turn left soon after the entrance gates in the direction of Bear Lake. The Bear Lake TH is at the end of the road. The Fern Lake trailhead is in Moraine Park. A paved road departs from the main road opposite to the Moraine Park Museum. After half a mile, turn left again, instead of going straight to the Moraine Park Campground. The Fern Lake TH is at the end of the road. Along the way, you pass the Cub Lake TH.
A free shuttle service connects the main trailheads of the central area of the park. From the shuttle bus terminal, one line goes to Bear Lake, and the other goes to Moraine Park. Bus schedules are posted at this page. Note that the bus stop is about a half mile from the Fern Lake TH.
Red TapeNo permits are required for day hikes and climbs in Rocky Mountain National Park. There is no parking fee and the shuttle is free. The entrance pass to the park is $20 per car and is valid for 7 days. (See this page for up-to-date, complete info.) The fee, however, is not collected before 6:30 AM. All park visitors should follow the Leave No Trace policy.
When To ClimbMost people climb Stones Peak during the Summer months. Though an ascent is possible in principle year-round, it would be a lot more difficult. During the summer months, an early start is strongly advised to minimize the danger of lightning. (More people are killed in the U.S. each year by lightning than by hurricanes.) In winter, one should expect ice, strong winds, sub-zero (Fahrenheit) temperatures, and frequent storms. Spring and Fall present the most variability. Summer conditions may prevail until October, or may be already gone by late August.
CampingThere are several camping sites within the park. Details on locations, facilities, reservations, and fees can be found at the camping page of RMNP. Bivy information can also be found on the park's site. The campsites at Spruce Lake are very nice and are convenient if you are determined to go up and down via Spruce Canyon.
Mountain ConditionsThe park's contact information page lists useful numbers. Two webcams, one pointed at Longs Peak and the other at a stretch of the Continental Divide, allow one to get an idea of the conditions not far from Stones Peak. Detailed forecasts are provided by NOAA.
Never forget that the weather may change very rapidly in the high country. The temperature may drop by 50°F or more in a couple of hours. Those who have been caught out by such sudden changes without proper equipment and preparation have not always survived.