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Route: RMNP Continental Divide traverse, Milner Pass to Bear Lake, ~15 miles and 4000 ft elevation
Time elapsed: ~9 hours
Summits along/near the route (with * attained this trip): Mt. Ida*, Chief Cheley Peak*, Cracktop, Hayden Spire, Sprague Mountain*, Knobtop, Notchtop, Ptarmigan Point, Flattop Mountain*
Weather: Sunny, moderate winds (15-20mph), mild temperatures; small thundershower at 430pm
Photos: SP'er 'brenta' covered much of this route around the same time I did (early Sept 2005). His photos (already posted to SP) are almost identical to mine (views of Bighorn Flats and Tonahutu Creek Trail, for example). Rather than upload very similar photos and waste space, I have referenced some of brenta's images in this trip report. Thanks for some great images, brenta. For additional photos of my trip (not posted to SP), click here.
If you're looking for relative isolation in the midst of often-crowded Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), a great option is the Milner Pass to Bear Lake route along the Contintental Divide. Along the way you can summit a variety of minor peaks, and the entire hike provides incredible views of the drainages to the east and west of the Divide. All you'll need is a relatively strong pair of legs, a day with some decent weather (most of the time is spent on exposed tundra on the ridge), and some willing friends for the car drop.
In town for a visit with my fiancee, I managed to hook up with a group from CHAOS-Boulder (Colorado Hiking And Outdoor Society), and we woke to great fall weather on Sunday September 11, 2005. My legs felt good (I'd been getting in shape throughout the summer months), but then, the day was just beginning.
I met the group (Dave, Paul, and Terry) in Boulder, and we agreed on the car shuttle plan and headed out. We planned to hike from Milner Pass to Bear Lake, so we first dropped off Terry's Jeep at Bear Lake, and then took Trail Ridge Road over to Milner Pass. We had started the day early, but by the time we finished the initial car shuttling, it was about 9am. The weather looked great -- blue sky, cool temperatures, light winds.
We started up the trail to Mt. Ida, and, with the others setting the pace, I was soon winded. (Hmmm... Michigan isn't quite the best place to train for speedy hikes above 11,000, as most of this day would be.) After about a half-hour of warm-up, however, I felt better, and we all moved quickly up the well-main tained trail to Mount Ida. The views are great, especially after leaving treeline for the tundra. (The hike up Ida would make a nice day outing with a mixed group -- the terrain is gentle, and hikers are rewarded early-on with views and the open feel of the tundra. Anyone in reasonable shape should make the Ida summit (weather permitting), and anyone looking for more adventure/exercise can add the scramble down and over to Chief Cheley.)
We soon reached the summit of Ida after some minor boulder-hopping near the top. We took a quick break, broke out some wind-shells for warmth (wind increased on the ridge, but remained light to moderate), and gobbled a snack. We surveyed the scrambling route from Ida to Chief Cheley Peak (next on the Divide ridge) and followed a line more or less directly down to the saddle between Ida and Chief Cheley. There we met two other hikers who had just descended from Chief Cheley and were headed back to the Milner Pass TH. We marveled together at the wonderful weather, and then parted. (Reading the summit logs later, I learned that the two were fellow SP'er's pksander and Fabio.)
The easy scramble between Ida and Cheley is fun, and as you move along the ridge new vistas open up. The view from the Mt. Ida / Chief Cheley area is impressive and interesting, offering a view of the 'backside' (per Trail Ridge Road) of Terra Tomah Mountain and Mt. Julian. Inkwell and Azure Lakes lie in the basin, and the line of Trail Ridge Road can be seen in the distance. The scramble to Chief Cheley's summit is as easy as bypassing it to the southwest, so you might as well go up and over, to be rewarded with a view of Highest Lake.
From Chief Cheley Peak we continued southeast along the ridge. You have the option to head out to Cracktop's summit (to the northeast), but we wanted to keep moving and so bypassed this, staying on the Divide. The route between Chief Cheley Peak and the area of Hayden Spire is a wonderful hike, mostly tundra-walking with some boulders thrown in occasionally for spice. There are great views on both sides of the Divide, but I spent much of my time looking northeast down Hayden Gorge. The northeast face of the Divide is often cliffed out (in contrast to a more gentle SW slope) and views over the lakes and down the basins are striking.
Hayden Spire is the next feature reached. Here the ridge juts out to the northeast in a series of ragged folds. We stayed on the easier tundra slopes and headed toward Sprague Mountain. The ridge in the area of Sprague provides some of the most dramatic hiking of the day. The terrain is easy, but steep cliffs provide great views as you wind along the ridge.
Soon we were atop Sprague Mountain. This is a great place for a break, weather permitting, and so we ate some lunch as we looked out in all directions over the park. The view southeast was particularly stirring, with Longs Peak rising against the skyline in the distance (see brenta's photo).
After the break, we headed down Sprague's slopes and along the ridge overlooking Sprague Glacier. Beneath the glacier we could see Irene Lake and Rainbow Lake, and Spruce Canyon stretched down into the distance. Skirting the cliffs above the glacier, we headed down the long slope towards Sprague Pass and Bighorn Flats (brenta's photo showing Eureka Ditch). Once on the Flats we fought our way through willows, eventually choosing to follow the Eureka Ditch, which offered the area of least resistance. We waded through the willows and chased off two elk (so much for "Bighorn" Flats) which were grazing on the western slopes.
As the land began to rise (towards pt 12,277 at the southern end of the Flats) the willows lessened, and we broke free to find the Tonahutu Creek Trail (brenta's photo). This is a well-maintained pack trail, which seemed like an expressway after the bushwacking. We followed this around quickly to Ptarmigan Pass, where decided to have a brief rest before descending via Flattop. Clouds had been gathering in the last several hours, and I snapped a quick photo of Notchtop Mountain dappled in shadow and light.
We had just set down our packs when I noticed lightning in some clouds to the west. We immediately abandoned our break and set off rapidly along the Flattop trail leading down to treeline. The storm clouds were still relatively far off, but the exposed area of Flattop Mountain seemed an awful place to be caught in. I began running and followed Dave (who easily outdistanced me) down the Flattop trail.
The clouds moved in fast, and Longs Peak was quickly obscured. As we ran we heard a few distant rumbles, and the wind increased steadily as the clouds moved overhead. Dave and I reached treeline and donned rain gear, and soon afterwards Terry and Paul joined us. In the end the storm proved to have more wind than rain, and we received only a splatter of raindrops on the descent.
My legs were aching and cramping from the run down Flattop, and we all seemed glad when we reached Bear Lake. Here the crowds reemerged (after Fabio and Pete near Chief Cheley, we hadn't seen anyone all day), and we passed a number of people strolling around the lake. At about 630pm we found the Jeep (in the now-full parking area), peeled off our shoes, and began the car-shuttle run back to Milner Pass. The road was lightly wet, and going was slow behind the other cars.
The car-ride out in the dark was (as usual) the most trying part of the day, and we were alternately trapped behind slow cars (when they were afraid of the curves and drop-offs) and trapping cars ourselves (when it was I who fearfully tapped the brakes). The traverse is worth the car shuttling, but if I do it again I'll push for a 'key-swap' approach (two parties starting at opposite ends and meeting halfway).
This is a great way to see the Park without the crowds. It's probably best as a Fall hike, to avoid thunderstorms, but in any season you should bring a headlamp in case of delay (or to get an early start). Routefinding is not difficult (there's that big cliff to your left most of the way), and you have good trails at either end. Hiking in the dark would certainly be possible and wouldn't necessarily slow the pace much. Make sure you carry water, as sources are rare/none on the ridge. There was water at Bighorn Flats, but I'm not sure whether that's constant from year to year.
So if you've got the weather, the legs, and the friends for car-drop -- go for it!