The RMNP trail philosophy and a little insight into the future

The RMNP trail philosophy and a little insight into the future

Page Type: Article
Activities: Hiking

The irony of all of it

Rocky Mountain National Park is the one of the busiest national park in the nation, usually breaking the top 10, but it is a bit of an anomaly if you ask me. Behind GSMNP and Yosemite, surrounded by substantial population centers, and Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Olympic, destinations for their natural wonders, Rocky Mountain is really pretty single-faceted and unrecognized. Other than driving through it and stopping in Estes or Grand Lake, it isn’t the most spectacular place for the lazy vacationer. This, unlike most other national parks, is based almost entirely on its trail system. RMNP boasts its vast trail system, 355 miles worth of broad, well maintained paths that take you to or within a few miles of your destination. I would agree that this was true for about 90% of the trails, but there are some glaring exceptions that reveal some of their policy about maintaining trails.

Most trails in the national park are built to last, well marked, hewn into stone, and free of downed timber. Coincidentally (or is it?), these are the trails that are well traveled, hosting lines of tourists in the summertime. These are the trails that lead to the picture ops, to pretty lakes, over Flattop; these are the trails that make their money. Economically, it would be foolish for them to let these trails be reclaimed by the forest and fall into disarray. People like to drive over Trail Ridge, but they also like to hike to Emerald Lake and Calypso Cascades. If they were to stop maintaining the trails, people would not hike them, and there would be no reason to visit for more than a day if even to visit at all. Trail Ridge Road isn’t going to consistently bring in 3 million people a year.

What has come to be of the trail system

There are many ways to hike across the park, but the three most frequented are Mummy Pass, Flattop Mountain, and Boulder-Grand Pass. Flattop Mountain is probably the second most popular ‘real’ hike in the park behind Long’s Peak, and is probably climbed by a hundred people a day in the tourist season; Mummy and Boulder-Grand Pass are probably crossed by less than 5 people a day. Mummy Pass is crossed by what appears on the map to be an established horse trail, but is in fact a small, indistinct, broken, grown over and narrow path no larger or better maintained than the wildlife trails that cross over it. It leads through meadow, marsh and mire, it is braided, and in many places, just trampled grass. It looks as if it hasn’t been maintained for ten years. Twice I have tried to intersect it near Mummy Pass, which isn’t quite obvious itself, just to either walk right across it, or find myself scouting it out to no avail. The Trails Illustrated map for the park lists coordinates for the pass itself, which I entered into my GPS and found. There was nothing there, no trail, nothing that really resembled a pass. My GPS was accurate in both elevation and triangulation that day, there was just no pass and no trail. I would eventually find the small trail a few minutes later, and resolved that I should warn people about the Mummy Pass Trail.

It seems that more often people have been getting lost or injured in the national park as of late, but attendance hasn’t made a sharp increase over the last few years. I hypothesize that people are following the trails shown on the map, the ones that are unmaintained or unimproved, thinking that they are still relatively easy to follow or well marked. Sometimes this is true for most of the trail, but there are places where it becomes indistinct and even the best of us have to backtrack our way on to the trail again. After climbing Castle Rock and coming down the unimproved trail to Spruce Lake, I heard some voices in the woods talking about ‘re-finding the trail’. I called to them and got them back on the right path, but it’s easy to go wrong on a few sections of that trail. I know exactly where they got off, too; right where I found myself when I wasn’t paying close attention to where I was going.

While on my 60 mile long backpacking trip this summer, I planned our route south through Long Meadows, which I knew was cross-country travel. On just about every map of the park, the trails to Long Meadows were shown leading to the edge of the opening and petering off after a while. From the north an unmaintained trail connects the north edge of the meadow with the Timber Lake Trail. This trail was not in very good shape, numerous large trees had fallen across it making travel a little less straightforward, but I had expected this from the beginning, and at least it was easy to follow where the trees weren’t blocking you. We expected to head south about a mile and a half to the southern end of the meadow, cross the creek and connect with the other trail that leads to Onahu Bridge. All the maps, including the crappy little maps they hand you at the entrance stations, clearly show the trail west of the creek. Every single one. We crossed the creek and connected to what seemed to be a well worn path, for a little while anyways, until it became apparent that it was not the trail we were looking for.

About midway through Long Meadows we heard a helicopter in the distance, after a minute or so; a SAR helicopter flew directly overhead, heading north and flying low. A few minutes later, a different helicopter crossed us overhead, heading south towards Grand Lake. We concluded that they were looking for someone somewhere north of us. Ironically, about two hours later we were the ones who were lost. The trail we were following was taking up the wrong direction and up in elevation, and we were left without a clear heading as to where the Onahu Bridge was. I claim that I will never get lost in RMNP, I’m just too familiar with my surroundings and know how to get out if need be, but it was frustrating none the less. That day we were supposed to hike ten miles to Grand Lake, but we expected to be on a trail by now. To make a long story short, we climbed down to the creek and found a human trail to follow, which took us to where there was evidence of a washed out bridge and a fisherman who worked for the park. He told us about how terrible the trail was coming out of Long Meadows and told us about a trail he had rediscovered in the area by looking at an old topo map of the area circa 1961. On the other side of the creek was a pretty good trail that took us to the Onahu Bridge a quarter mile down stream. Upon review, I did find a map that showed the trail on the east side of the creek in Lisa Foster’s book, but that was the only one. Had the NPS put a little sign at the bottom of the meadow, it could have all been avoided.

An unclear future for our trails

The fact is, that map made in 1961 shows a lot of other trails, ones that I haven’t found description of elsewhere. It shows a trail that takes you miles up Columbine Creek, one that connects Signal Mountain with the Stormy Peaks Pass trail, one that could have been useful for firefighters battling the ‘Cow Creek Fire’ this summer, the Husted Trail. The map shows trails that have faded back into history in just about every area of the park, back when the trail system was in a golden age. At some point, someone decided that these trails didn’t need to be maintained anymore, and so abandoned them. With that in mind, it’s easy to make the assumption that the NP will continue to let trails fall into disuse and abandonment. I’m afraid this is what’s on the horizon for our unmaintained trails, for the Mummy Pass and Long Meadows and Spruce Lake trails.

It is a fine line that the NPS is walking with Rocky Mountain. While the park tries to balance the ‘character of the wilderness’ on one hand, it is loosing grasp with the importance of the trail system with the other. Rocky Mountain isn’t the best park to see through a car window, so it can’t fall back on that to keep attendance up. Most people come to RMNP to enjoy the wilderness AND take a nice hike, and should word get out that this park is more inclined to build picnic tables and resurface Trail Ridge every summer than maintain their trails, attendance will drop. Some locals might say that that would be wonderful, but with less revenue coming in from tourism, the worse and worse the trails will get. The trails are our primary resource, and right now we are under allocating that commodity.

There are two types of people who can save these trails, the people building picnic tables, and the people who actually use the trails. Right now, the park management is making a huge effort into working on the trails, but every hiker can do something little to help out. The unimproved trail past Lake Verna was littered with downed timber, trees that could be easily tossed to the side, rocks that could be kicked out of the way, and grass that could be trampled. We did all of these things in the interest of making it easier the next morning to travel over, but you don’t have to just avoid the trees, just take them out of the equation. On narrow trails, widen it by trampling the grass. Don’t be timid about it, if you feel bad about walking on the tundra, too bad, until there is an obvious trail leading the way people are going to braid the trail to the point that the tundra is decimated. Sometimes you have to kill a little to save a lot.

Final thoughts

The NPS has done a great job keeping most of its trails up to par, but I'm only looking at the trend that seems to be continuing since 1961. I aknowledge that the NPS has limited resources and does what it does to gain revenue for things like trail maintenance. However, somewhere along the line it seems that the NPS has switched from investing in its land to investing in its capital. There is nothing wrong with this, it is a necessary cycle that has to be employed, but I think its time to stop investing in resurfacing its roads every year and putting new picnic tables in to investing in what the tourists are really there for, the trails.


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-14 of 14

CSUMarmot - Aug 29, 2010 6:30 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: If your profile....

Indeed, 17 years young


EricChu - Sep 4, 2010 4:35 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: If your profile....

Well said, FortMental! This is interesting indeed...!

holly sorenson

holly sorenson - Sep 4, 2010 7:36 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: If your profile....

You said it 'FortMental'. It is the way of our entire governmental system. Sit in front of the T.V. eat McDonalds, and drink Bud light. Ugg!


mvs - Aug 30, 2010 11:32 am - Voted 10/10

Scott Silver

Good article. Scott Silver and his Wild Wilderness organization have been advancing this theory for a decade now. Go there for some hilarious (and sad) political cartoons illustrating the problem. I hope things don't go further down this road.


EricChu - Sep 4, 2010 4:38 pm - Voted 10/10

I don't see any reason...

...not to give this really well-written article a 10/10 vote. I'm giving mine, in any case!
Good work!


CSUMarmot - Sep 4, 2010 7:56 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: I don't see any reason...

Thanks, Mountain Jim is just mad because the trails declined under his watch as county commissioner, and i dont know what the other guy has to say

however your vote bumped up the score by 20%, so I thank you


Downy - Sep 6, 2010 9:35 am - Hasn't voted


I disagree with your well written article on many levels.
I find the RMNP to be quite nice from the car window.
And I don't care if some trails are bad, that's good for me.

EPineJr - Sep 17, 2010 8:27 pm - Hasn't voted

Interesting acticle

My response is more of a ramble from someone who lives 87 ft above sea level, and finds the variety of Rocky Mountain National Park to be truly amazing.

I just spent 6 days in RMNP and I find the level of development to be nearly perfect. Americans in wheelchairs can scoot around Bear Lake or up to the Toll Memorial. The views from the Alpine Visitor's Center are amazing, even if just an easy walk from the parking lot. As a matter of fact most of the people I saw at those places would have a pretty rough time going more than a 1/8 mile from the trailhead. It's their park, too. Let them walk around Bear Lake and say they experienced Rocky Mountain National Park. As far a a view from the car window - Trail Ridge road is unmatched. The drive blows me away. I don't mind being stuck in a two mile long elk jam because of the spectacular views.

My experience was a little more involved. Hikes up Glacier Gorge, to Chasm Lake, and boulder hopping up to Andrews Tarn. Hiked up Hallet Peak, and the CCY traverse. Perfect hiking. Still much more to see. I stayed in Estes, got my Starbucks, and drove into the park every day by 7AM. Great hiking and sleeping in my nice warm house at night.

I would disagree on the amount of current trails vs those that were in the past. Compare the ubiquitous NatGeo map of the park to the USGS topos last updated over 2 decades ago. Many more trails today.

Navigating in the park with a topo map is pretty staightforward, even without GPS or a compass. Much of the park is alpine tundra with line of sight to the summits. I find it easier to navigate in RMNP than GSMNP. Unless you are near a knob, or in a patch of dead trees you really can't navigate by sight. No observation towers are needed on most of the RMNP summits.

All Hail Rocky Mountain National Park! Something for everyone!


CSUMarmot - Sep 18, 2010 1:36 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Interesting acticle

indeed, but the USGS maps show probably 50 miles of trails that the NatGeo have, in fact, those trails hardly even exist anymore


JoshFM - Sep 21, 2010 5:25 pm - Voted 7/10

Some good points...

...but there are two grammar errors in the first sentence alone--could be a turn-off for taking the rest of the piece seriously. But I do find it informative, although I don't agree that more miles of maintained trails are needed in RMNP. Given the seriously handicapped state of the National Park Service, I think they do a great job of putting their resources where they will be most utilized. If you want more/better trails, get in touch with NPS and organize a volunteer crew. Sounds like you're on your way to doing something like that. Also, many USGS maps are notoriously inaccurate when it comes to trails, but they work wonders when combined with a compass. Thank you for your concern about our wonderful public lands.


CSUMarmot - Sep 21, 2010 6:35 pm - Hasn't voted


i beleive they would be 'grammatical' errors
Gotta watch those adverbs or someone might not take you seriously


JoshFM - Sep 23, 2010 12:40 pm - Voted 7/10

Re: Touche'd

You can "beleive" whatever you want, but that doesn't make you right. It does, however, reveal your poor spelling. It is not incorrect to say "grammar errors." Look it up, and then address the real issues in the discussion of your post.


CSUMarmot - Sep 23, 2010 6:10 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Touche'd

Thanks for being my english consultant, but until you contibute something useful to this site don't council people on 'being taken seriously'

Handicapped state of the NPS? Next time you drive through the entrance stations at RMNP you'll notice how financially debilitated they are.

And Im not necessarily asking for more maintained trails, I just want them to maintain the trails that show up on the maps they hand out to millions of tourists each year


wetterhorn76 - Oct 2, 2010 2:02 pm - Hasn't voted


I consider it my 2nd home and here's my celebration of the park from this past Monday;

Or December

Viewing: 1-14 of 14