Rocky Mountain National Park & Gorge Lakes Basin Overview
Chief Chelley Peak, Mount Ida, and Inkwell Lake.
Rocky Mountain National Park
is the magnificent and beatific showcase of Rocky Mountain granduer occuping the north-central portion of Colorado's Front Range
. It is Colorado's first (and for many years, only) National Park. Designated in 1915 RMNP
was the partial realization of mountain guide and conservationist Enos Mills'
dream of a "super park" stretching from the present day northern boundary of the park, south through the Indian Peaks Wilderness
, the James Peak Wilderness
, to the southern boundary of the Mount Evans Wilderness
. Alas the "super park" notion was not well recieved. However the 265,193 acre park still encompasses some of the most beautiful glaciated alpine terrain in Colorado. Nurtured by park superintendent Roger Toll
and loved by the populace the Park became a magnet for those in search of the heart of the Rocky Mountains. A beacon that is still vital.
RMNP is considered by many locals crowded and touristy. Relative to broad swaths of Colorado this is true. However there are hidden recesses in the most popular of locals. The Gorge Lakes Drainge
represents one of the most guarded and sacrosanct basins in the park. The summits about this alpine oasis guard a treasure visible from the well traveled Trail Ridge Road
but visited by rather few. This stairstep basin of nine lakes is surrounded by five peaks. Mount Ida
, Chief Cheley Peak
, Mount Julian
, and Terra Tomah Mountain
. The lakes from highest to lowest are: Highest Lake
, Azure Lake
, Inkwell Lake
, Arrowhead Lake
, Doughnut Lake
, Love Lake
, Rock Lake
, Little Rock Lake
, and Forest Lake
. This is wild country and despite this area's alluring beauty it remains remarkably pristine. This is likely due to the fact that any route requires either traversing mountains or one of the most gruesome bushwhacks imaginable. The Thompson Glacier Gorge (Forest Canyon)
separates the hanging valley of the Gorge Lakes
from the easy access of Trail Ridge Road. This impediment is a formidable obstacle in itself. All approaches present difficulties.
The upper reaches of the Big Thompson River
drainage was receptive to a deluge that on July 4, 1976 produced one of the deadliest flash floods in Colorado history. A storm born of peculiar atmospheric conditions dropped eight inches of rain in one hour on the headwaters of the Big Thompson River producing a flood in the lower canyon below Estes Park
that resulted in 145 deaths. In this respect this area has a weighty-ness that is palpable. This area has the feel of sourcewaters that have immense power down below.
Mount Julian Overview
Mount Julian, Chief Cheley Peak, and Mount Ida above the Gorge Lakes Basin.
is one of Rocky Mountain National Parks wildest peaks. While not technical it is tucked into one of the most convoluted areas of the Park. Its ascent either requires traversing other mountains or bushwhacking though some amazingly difficult terrain. This seclusion gives Julian an allure belying its 12,900 foot stature. It makes up in attitude whatever it lacks in altitude.
The mountain itself is composed of 1.3 billion year old granites, gniesses, and schists of the Idaho Springs Formation
, Colorado's metamophic basement rock. This solid and attractive stone graces Julian and the other Gorge Lakes Peaks
with a solid slabiness that was sculpted and etched by the artistry of the glaciers that graced Colorado's highcountry durring the the past Wisconsonian Ice Age
that gripped Colorado up to 15,000 years ago.
Mount Julian's summit view reveals the heart of RMNP. The various subranges of the park are all easily visible. From the monolith of Longs Peak
to the Never Summer Range
, and Mummy Range
the park shows her secrets. Beyond the park boundaries distant views of the Indian Peaks
, Gore Range
, and Medicine Bow Mountains
highlight the horizon.
Maps & Directions
Routes on Mount Julian, all are long or difficult.
All Trailheads are within Rocky Mountain National Park. The Park occupies the highlands that seperate the towns of Estes Park
and Grand Lake
. To get to the park from Estes Park travel west on highway 34 through Estes Park. The Park entrance has fee stations and a $20 entrance fee is required.
Access to Mount Julian would likely begin at either Forest Overlook
or Milner Pass
. Both of these trailheads are found along Trail Ridge Road (highway 34). Follow the well signed road until it climbs past timberline.
Forest Overlook is 15.2 miles in from the Beaver Meadows Entrance on the eastern (Estes Park) side of the park. The signed overlook has ample parking. From here Terra Tomah Mountain and Mount Ida are obvious, as is the Gorge Lakes basin between them. There is no trail from the overlook. The bushwhack begins immediatley. The Terra Toma Traverse and Gorge Lakes routes begin here.
Milner Pass is 25 miles in from the Beaver Meadows Entrance. The pass has parking and is the launch point for several established trails.
Mount Julian Routes
Mount Julian's north face as seen from near Inkwell Lake.
Terra Tomah Traverse: >7 miles RT, 5,436 feet total elevation gain, class 3 (minor).
The Terra Tomah Traverse route begins at Forest Overlook. The route is obvious from the over look. The order of the day is a 2,000 ft descent into the Canyon followed by a 3,000 ft ascent of Terra Tomah on the other side. From the parking lot descend west then south down into the abyss of the Thompson Glacier Gorge (Forest Canyon). This steep bushwhack is not that difficult on the descent. On the exit it can be a sleeping dragon. When at the bottom of the canyon 1 mile in, cross the famous Big Thompson river and begin the tedious trudge up through the dense trees to Forest Lake. From this placid location the route continues up the remaining timbered slopes to timberline on the increasingly defined north-west ridge of Terra Tomah Mountain. The scambling is along a brief portion of this ridge. The scenery along this drawbridge to the summit plateau is fantastic. Once on the massive upper slopes of Terra Tomah Mountain continue past the scruffy summit rocks and head west towards the more defined summit of Mount Julian. The route from here is a scenic hike along a ridge that allows many chances to peer down into the secretive confines of the Gorge Lakes just to the north. Once on Julian's summit enjoy the stellar view and solitude. There is a summit register placed September 9, 2004. The descent reverses the route or picks up the Gorge Lakes Route for a descent directly into the upper Gorge Lakes drainage. In either case the route out requires a 2,000 ft ascent of the walls of Forest Canyon.
Gorge Lakes Route: 7-8 miles RT, 5,436 ft. total elevation gain, class 3 (special).
The Gorge Lakes Route on Mount Julian is one of the most difficult pieces of terrain I have ever encountered. It is a bushwhack of unnerving intensity. I only descended it so I will describe it as such. I assume no one will want to actualy follow this route so my description might wax heavy on emotional outpouring and lack in technical detail.
Begin on the summit of Mount Julian. From the summit cairn walk north 25 feet and stare down into the abyss of the Gorge Lakes drainage. From here you can see all the Gorge Lakes except Rock and Forest. Immediatly start descending down a ledgy broad gulley that runs right up to the summit. The trickiest move is up top. Looking down the gulley is quite manageble with the biggest concern being unseen cliffs. Fortunately near the bottom this gulley reaches easy broken slopes between two adjacent cliff bands. If wet this gulley would be awful. In dry conditions it is fun. Kane discovered this nifty descent so I refer to it as Cain Couloir.
From the bottom of the gulley, it is a pleasant stroll to a glacial bench overlooking Inkwell Lake. From here to the north end of Arrowhead Lake the route is an absolute joy. This is a wonderful, pristine glacial basin. There was no sign of people here. None. The lakes are magical, the scenery spectacular, and it is in one of Colorados most visited mountain lacations, RMNP. Yet this basin is as pristine as Colorado's mountains may allow... And the reason for this is the basin below Arrowhead lake is ghastly. That is not to say that it isn't beautiful in a primeval, terrible sort of way. It starts out with the descent of one of the more obnoxious headwalls choked in steep timber and riddled with little cliff bands. To get out of this you can climb into the gorge-like little creekbed that offers slick rocks choked with willows. As one nears the ledges and flats of the headwall one realizes that these aren't meadows but willow choked bogs. Retreat back to the trees and find boulder and deadfall littered slopes that contain many hidden mini-cliffs. At the lower basin it is possible to escape this cacophony of misery on a tipsy boulderfield. On our descent the final insult came when, trying to bypass a lower headwall we were descending a gulley that was blocked by a large chockstone. Climbing over it would have been dangerous. We could squeze under it with a little contortion... and that is what we did. This route has it all if you are a masochist... From the vicinity of the Rock Lakes conditions improve dramaticaly.
The walk along the faint fishing trails below Little Rock Lake is a nice salve to the hurts garnered upstream. Soon however it is time to again bushwhack through dense trees and deadfall to reach the lowpoint of the Big Thompson River. From here there is no way to go but up so begin the 2,000 ft climb to the car. By now you should be numb to heartbreaking bushwhack but this ascent is painful even so.
Camping and Red Tape
Mount Julian is contained by Rocky Mountain National Park and therefore under the administration of the National Park Service, part of the Department of the Interior. This is a rather different jurisdiction for those used to climbing on National Forest Service lands administered by the Department of Agriculture. The most immediate difference is that the park costs a bit of change: daily admittence is $20 dollars, camping is $18 and limited by a permit system. The well traveled thorough fares are well developed (parking lots, bathrooms, visitor centers, overlooks) and see a lot of trafic in the summer months. In addition the park has a remarkable trail system. So the price does provide some amenities.
Camping, as stated above, is limited to permits. To find out more information from the Park Service contact listed below. The informal (and trailless) Rock Lake Campsite could be utilized on Mount Julian.
Rocky Mountain National Park
1000 Highway 36
Estes Park, CO 80517-8397
Visitor Information Recorded Message
Visitor Information for the Hearing Impaired (TDD)
Or see the RMNP website.
Mount Julian's only access, Trail Ridge Road, is closed seasonally from October-May depending on snowfall. When the road is closed the mountain is inaccessible. The routes themselves are testy enough, an epic approach would be overkill. With that in mind the climbing season is probably just July or August through September. The fording of the Big Thompson River would be troublesome at peak runoff so a late fall might mitigate this obstacle. The National Park Service may provide some information if queried about conditions near Trail Ridge Road and the informal Rock Lake Camp Site.
Click here to view a 7-day forecast for Estes Park, CO, 15 miles east of Mount Julian.