Untrammeled Rocky Mountain National Park: Lesser-traveled Trails

RMNPAlbertaFallsBy Kathy Kaiser
When I first came to Colorado, I avoided Rocky Mountain National Park, even though it was just up the road from Boulder. It was too crowded and I thought the scenery was ho-hum, especially compared to other parts of the state, such as the San Juans or the mountains around Aspen. I admit it; I was a snob.

But over the years, its closeness (and the joy of avoiding the I-70 and 285 corridors) started drawing me up, and I found another good reason to hike the national park: its wildness. Because it’s under the protection of the U.S. National Park Service, the park is devoid of ranchettes, gas stations, grocery stores, mining claims, mountain bikers and other indications of civilization that can ruin the wilderness experience in the rest of Colorado. What it does is have is an abundance of wildlife that greets you around each turn: elk in the meadows or on the tundra, moose (on the west side of the park) peeking out from willow bushes, marmots sunning themselves on boulders.

RMNPBelowMillesLakeOne fall, I was hiking the Cub Lake trail. It was the season for elk bugling, for sightseers to line up their cars along the road through Moraine Park and train their binoculars on the huge elk herds in the meadow. Watching the males lift their heads and “bugle” their claims to territory is a wildlife experience that should not be missed. It’s like hearing the howl of a coyote, something that gives you goose bumps–a link to wildness. I hoped to join the elk watchers after my hike, but it proved unnecessary. As I was coming back down the trail in the late afternoon, I discovered that the elk herd had come to me—and a few other hikers.

RMNPBelowMillesLakeWe stood silent, dumbfounded, and a little nervous, as elk heading down to the valley walked around us. We tried to stay out of their way, especially the rambunctious young males, but they didn’t really care about us. They just wanted to eat the grasses, and the males wanted to show off a bit. Holding our breaths, we watched them eat, their dark brown fur melding into the brown grasses, heard the young ones call to their mothers–the first time I had heard their high-pitched cries–and saw the bulls raise their huge antlered heads and make a sound that sends chills down your spine.

Not every hike in the park has been that fortuitous, but I’ve managed to stumble across more wildlife in the park than just about any place in Colorado. Partly because the animals are protected in the park, they have lost some fear of humans and allow us to get closer.

It’s true that the trails in the park can be crowded, but most people tend to congregate at a few spots, most notably the Bear Lake trails. I would hazard a guess that a lot of tourists’ wilderness experience consists of a short walk around Bear Lake. Then it’s back to Estes for some saltwater taffy. There are other parts of the park, not as well known, where the trails aren’t packed, especially if you hike more than a half mile or so back.

RMNPGemLake2Gem Lake Trail is one of those. More of a locals’ favorite right outside of Estes Park—and the main part of the park, so you don’t pay an entrance fee. It’s a favorite area for climbers in an area to the north of Estes known as Twin Owls because of a rock formation that resembles two owls.

Unlike the rest of RMNP, where glaciers carved the valleys and mountains, the rocks in the Twin Owls area were formed by a slower and gentler process of rain and wind. A world unto itself, these strangely shaped rock formations will lend themselves to anthropomorphizing. One of the more famous is Paul Bunyan’s shoe, which sits about half way up the trail on a rocky platform by itself, as if the park service had set up this geologic display just to amuse (and scare?) hikers.

Gem Lake can be accessed from two trails, one behind McGregor Ranch. This old homestead is open to the public and well worth a visit to experience what farming life was like 100 years ago. From this route you can look back down on the ranch, which sits in a beautiful valley. The beginning of the other trail is equally lovely, passing groves of aspen intermingled with red boulders. The trails meet up among the ponderosa pines, and, after a short while, turn the corner and get your first view of rocky landscape. To enter it, wander through a maze of boulders and aspen trees so perfectly and delicately grouped that you have to wonder if Paul Bunyan’s gardening aunt had a hand in this.

From there, the trail heads up, with ever better views of the surrounding mountains, into a valley full of curious and large rock formations. No matter your intentions, it’s hard to avoid seeing faces and animal forms. There’s one particularly large snail sitting on top of the opposite mountain that’s never failed to capture my attention. This is a great trail for kids because they’ll see faces and forms in the rocks that adults might be too embarrassed to admit seeing.

(Note to thrill seekers: Below the lake is an open-air outhouse with what has to be one of the best views seen while sitting on a toilet.)

RMNPGemLakeAs you hike up the trail, a valley of rocks to one side, a cliff wall soars hundreds of feet up on the other side. I once watched a bevy of blackbirds take off from the top of this cliff, doing increasingly complex maneuvers—in one case two birds flew together, belly to belly, one upside down— as though they were participating in an extreme flying competition. At the lake, swallows dart in and out of the rocks and skim over the water.

Gem Lake is not your typical alpine lake, surrounded by steep, snow-covered mountains. Instead, it’s protected on all sides by steep rock walls, so it feels like a hidden, peaceful enclave, far away from the noisy clutter of Estes Park, which sits below. This lake has its own quiet pleasures: a sandy beach and shallow water, one shoreline fringed with cattails and rock walls that cast golden reflections as well as echoing voices. Sit back and relax on the beach, wade in the clear, cool waters, and hear your voice come back at you when you yell at your kids to get down from the rocks.

Access: Two trailheads, one past McGregor Ranch, north of Estes Park, which has limited parking, and from another three-quarters of mile farther down the road past the turnoff for the ranch. About a 2-mile hike (depending on which parking lot you start from).

RMNPFinchLakeAnother trailhead outside of the main part of the park is Wild Basin, north of Allenspark. The main trail follows the North St. Vrain Creek up to Calypso Cascades named, not for a dance done at night by lonely mountaineers, but for the calypso orchid, a small delicate flower that blooms in June and grows in dark, secretive places around the falls. Another mile up the trail is Ouzel Falls (named for the water ouzel, a black bird that is fond of swimming under water), where water spills over rocks and crashes onto the rocks below. On a hot day, it’s heavenly to stand near the falls and feel the cold spray.

Unfortunately parking is limited at the trailhead, especially on summer weekends. If the parking lot is full, another option is the Finch Lake Trail, which is about a mile closer to the park entrance and to more parking. Although Finch Lake is 4.5 miles up the trail, I aim for a shorter destination, an aspen forest, about 1.5 miles up. The first part of the trail hugs the side of the mountain through a dense forest with a few aspens thrown in here to lighten the trail. Through the trees are glimpses of Mount Meeker, which looms larger the higher you get, with its broad flanks of rock fields that look almost metallic. It seems a harsh view and terrain until you get to the top and turn the corner onto a pleasant, sunny aspen forest. Suddenly the mood changes, as it always does among the white barked trunks and fluttering leaves of Populus tremuloides. The aspen forest, with a few ponderosas, continues for about another half mile to a turnoff for a trail down to Allenspark. From here, the Finch Lake Trail continues upward through pines.

Access: North of Allenspark on Hwy.7, turn left at sign for Wild Basin. Calypso Cascades: is 1.8 miles from the trailhead, and Ouzel Falls is: 2.7 miles. Park admission charged.

It’s difficult to find aspen groves in the park, mostly because pine trees weren’t cut down for mining, which opened the hillsides to aspens, a transition species. But one trail is notable for its aspens, which sprang up after logging operations removed the original fir trees. The Mill Creek Basin trail doesn’t look like much to start out with, through an open, almost treeless meadow, but soon it follows a small creek up through an aspen forest. It’s a pleasant walk, especially on a hot day, and a mile or so above the trailhead, the land flattens out somewhat, and you’re suddenly in a cathedral of tall aspens, soothed and refreshed by the sound of their leaves in the wind.

Access: The trail starts from Hallowell Park, a valley off the Bear Lake Road, and climbs 1-½ miles up to the aspen basin. From there, you can continue another mile up to Bierstadt Lake.

RMNPMtChapinAnother trail that doesn’t look promising at the trailhead is Mount Chapin, which starts out steeply in a dense and dark pine forest. But after a quarter-mile or so, the trail comes out on the tundra, into sunlight and wide-open high spaces. Although the park is famous for Trail Ridge Road, one of the highest roads in North America, a lot of the trails along the road tend to be crowded. The Mount Chapin trail is one of the few tundra hikes that’s off the beaten path. To get there, take Fall River Road, the original road through the park, which is now a one-way (up) dirt road.

The beginning of the trail is a steep, rocky climb to a place where the land levels out enough to form a small basin of ponds fringed with green sedges, rocky hillocks, and a few bunches of fir trees, stunted and curved from the incessant strong winds. After winding through this mountain garden, the trail opens up into true tundra: no trees, no ponds, the only vegetation a few willow bushes. Other than that, it’s an open expanse looking across the deep valley to the mountains on the other side. It feels like you’re eye level with the clouds. Aside from being in an airplane, it’s as close as you’ll get to the sky.

RMNPMtChapin2Up here, above 10,000 feet, the summer season is short, and June is when most of the flowers bloom. You have to look hard to see them; the harsh conditions at this altitude force most plants to stay low, but you’ll be rewarded. It’s like looking for small gems, bits of color amid the short grass carpet and boulders: the purple sky pilot, taller and showier than most tundra plants; the purple alpine forget-me-not, a cousin to the one planted in gardens, but hugging the ground; the pink rose crown, looking like a large clover; alpine phlox, a whitish-pink flower that can carpet the ground in places, along with moss campion; and, my favorite, the alpine sunflower, only two or three inches high but with a yellow flowerhead that brightens even the darkest day. These are flowers best appreciated on your hands and knees, up close, which is also a good idea for avoiding the strong (and often cold) winds at this altitude.

Up here there’s a good chance of seeing marmots, a member of the squirrel family, up to two feet in length and rotund, often seen basking on boulders, where they can blend in to the rock face. You’ll probably hear the pika, a small guinea-pig size animal, before you see it. This member of the rabbit family hangs out among the rocks, where it darts in and out, carrying bundles of grass, shrilly whistling to other pikas.

Access: Take Fall River Road, which starts in Horseshoe Park, 6.5 miles up to a switchback, where you’ll see a sign on the right for Chapin Mountain and usually a few other cars parked here.

RMNPfallriverroadThe drive up the narrow Fall River Road is worth a trip, in itself, because the one-way traffic lets you concentrate on the wildlife and landscape, instead of traffic. The road also makes an excellent hiking trail, especially before the pass opens (usually in July) and closes (usually October). The lower parts meander through dense forests with the creek burbling alongside, and this is a great opportunity to enjoy the popular Chasm Falls. As you get higher, the views are magnificent: looking back down (east) toward Horseshoe Park, across the valley to the steep slopes where huge rock slides are evident, and to the west, where a large glacial cirque marks the top of the pass.

RMNPGlacierGorgeFinally, no trip to the park is complete without a hike to an alpine lake. Glacier Gorge is only slightly less crowded than the Bear Lake area, but the access to some of the most spectacular high mountain lakes is worth the crowds. Besides, most people on this trail only get as far as Albert’s Falls, about a half mile up, and miss the rugged mountains beyond. About a mile up the trail from the Glacier Gorge parking lot is a steeply walled granite basin that leads to several alpine lakes. Another half-mile or so up through this valley the trail splits, with one trail going to Mills Lake (named for Enos Mills, the founder of the park) and another to The Loch.

It’s a clamber along and over mountain streams, through dense forests and into rocky, wild basins, where turquoise blue lakes are surrounded by steep mountains of granite, with waterfalls that tumble hundreds of feet, and patches of snow and ice that linger in the mountain crevices well into August. These are the places that make you want to yodel or kneel down in reverence; destinations that make the drive through a crowded Estes Park, behind slow-moving tourists, and a long hard climb worth it.

Access: The Loch is 2.7 miles from the Glacier Gorge parking lot, and Mills Lake is 2.5 miles. Because the Glacier Gorge parking lot is small, the best deal is to take the Bear Lake shuttle. In fact, this summer, you have no choice, as the Park Service is widening the road to Bear Lake, and no cars are allowed past Sprague Lake May 14 through Oct. 31. Shuttle pickups are every 30 minutes.

Helpful websites: www.nps.gov/romo

All photos by Kathy Kaiser