The short trip was conceived rather last minute when my wife had some free time at the end of a business trip to Colorado. We had never visited Rocky Mountain National Park, mostly because we wanted to avoid its large crowds during our more usual summertime trips to the state. Grand Lake would be our starting point – we set off to research a handful of decent dayhikes that would give us a good feel of RMNP. We quickly learned that most of the classic RMNP hikes and terrain lie on the east side of the park – inaccessible from Grand Lake during the winter due to the Trail Ridge Road closure. Access to higher peaks on the west side of the park typically involves long approaches, something that we didn’t have in mid November with the short daylight hours. Further complicating matters was a forecast calling for a good dumping of snow on the higher peaks. On a positive note, it was the last weekend of elk season, so hiking within RMNP would give us refuge from the hunters (and yes, they were everywhere around Lake Granby and the NW-most Indian Peaks access points).
What follows is a brief trip report highlighting the approximately 25 miles we covered over 2 ½ days. I was hesitant to create a report for such an “easy” trip, but decided to do so since there is relatively less information on the west side of RMNP compared to the east. This might serve as a good overview for anyone looking for mellower options in the area.
Day One - Thunder Pass
The furthest you can get up Trail Ridge Road in the winter is the Colorado River Trailhead. This TH serves as a popular starting point to many destinations within the Never Summer Mountains. Accumulating snow and some avy risk killed our original intended destination, Lake of the Clouds. Thunder Pass became plan B.
The Colorado River Trail is easy to follow for the first 4 miles as it parallels the lazy headwaters of the Colorado River. On a clear day, one would have a great view of the Never Summer Mountains to the west, but falling snow took away our visibility. We reached Lulu City, site of an 1800s era mining boomtown. Not much is left except for cabin remnants and some mining debris. The highlight here is a winding Colorado River going through a large open meadow.
Shortly after Lulu City, the Colorado River Trail continues along the river to LaPoudre Pass. We instead turned off and headed west to Thunder Pass. We immediately started a sustained climb up toward the Grand Ditch (a water diversion canal) and eventually Thunder Pass. As we gained elevation, the snow quickly deepened to knee deep. It was slow going. Snowshoes were not overly helpful as much of the snow was new and unconsolidated. With the slow progress and the waning daylight hours, we realized Thunder Pass would not be reached…the Grand Ditch became our turnaround point. It was probably a good decision as the snow intensified significantly for the return trip.
Day Two Part I - Valley and River Trails
Much of the west side of RMNP is bordered by the broad Kawuneeche Valley and the meandering Colorado River. Two different trails form a 5 mile loop that circle through this area. The River Trail parallels the Colorado River before looping back and becoming the Valley Trail as it returns to the trailhead through pine forest and open meadows closer to Trail Ridge Road (there is almost no traffic this time of year). This would be a perfect trail for someone who wants to see the RMNP backcountry without any major elevation gain.
These trails provide a great view of the southern Never Summer Mountains – specifically Bowen Mountain, Mount Baker, Mount Stratus, and Green Knoll. Wildlife is usually abundant…we saw large amount of tracks and scat, especially elk. However we never did see any elk probably because of the impending winter storm and elk hunting occurring just a couple miles away at the park border. We did see coyotes, fresh bear tracks, and some bald eagles.
Day Two Part II - East Inlet Trail
The East Inlet Trail may be the most popular trail on the west side of RMNP. It starts just outside Grand Lake and proceeds through the scenic East Meadow and up to several lakes and eventually Boulder-Grand Pass. While it is most popular as a dayhike destination, this trail serves as a starting point for many peaks and other backcountry destinations on the west side of the park.
With only 4 hours of daylight remaining, reaching Lone Pine Lake (5.5 miles one way) or Lake Verna (6.9 miles one way) was not an option. After leaving the trailhead, an offshoot trail quickly leads to Adams Falls. While nobody was there, it was quickly evident how much overuse this place receives in the summer based on all the erosion and wear and tear that covered the area. We were glad to be here in the “offseason”.
The trail climbs a little before opening into the vast East Meadows. The far eastern end of the meadows are dominated by Mount Craig and to a lesser extent Mount Cairns and Mount Wescott. All of these peaks are accessible via both technical and non-technical routes from the East Inlet Trail. After circumnavigating the meadow, the trail starts climbing more steeply to Cats Lair, our turnaround point.
Day Three - East Inlet Trail...again
Before making an early departure to Denver to catch our flight, we made one last hike back up to the East Meadow. The overnight snow completely changed the landscape. We were hoping that we would be stuck here for one more day and do some more exploring (Berthoud Pass and I-70 EB were both closed temporarily the prior evening), but that was not to be the case. It was time to head back. It was very tough driving over Berthoud Pass seeing all the backcountry skiers getting ready for a fun day in fresh powder while we were spending a day confined to the car and airport.
It was great getting a small sampler of RMNP even if it was on the tamer west side. If we’re ever back in this area, we’ll spend more time in the Indian Peaks Wilderness to the south. We avoided IPW this weekend because it was the last weekend of elk season.
All in all, while the conditions weren’t favorable, it was great having such a popular national park to ourselves. We only saw other hikers on the East Inlet Trail and it was only a couple of small groups. It would be nice to head back again and spend a couple days in the Never Summer Mountains. It seems like they are generally crowd free, even in the summer.
As Coloradoans already know, the beetle kill situation around Grand Lake is really bad. We were fortunate since snow covering the trees covered the negative visual impact of so many dead brown trees. This is definitely something to consider as one would be looking at a lot of brown in the summertime and have to hike over a lot of deadfall if doing any bushwhacking.