By Erik Stensland
As Rocky Mountain National Park celebrates its 100th anniversary, it is time to take a fresh look at this impressive national treasure. Most visitors to the park only scratch the surface. Many think it is far too busy or that by driving Trail Ridge Road, they have seen it all. The fact is that, with 355 miles of hiking trails, 150 mountain lakes, and 60 peaks higher than 12,000 feet, there are many, many overlooked, beautiful and solitary places to explore—some of them more difficult to reach than others.
The Haynach Lakes were named with the Arapahoe word meaning “snow water” due to the high elevation of the lakes. Tucked into a remote valley just west of the Continental Divide, the Haynach Lakes area is comprised of one primary lake and numerous smaller lakes located right at the edge of the tree line. Here the mountains rise right up out of the water on nearly every side. Numerous streams wind their way through grassy flower-filled meadows as elk lazily graze and enjoy the idyllic setting. It is an eight-mile hike to this area, which begins at the Green Mountain Trailhead in the Kawuneeche Valley. Fortunately, this area boasts one of the most beautiful backcountry campsites in the park. Reservations need to be made in advance with the National Park Service.
Summer below Alice
The Lion Lake area of Wild Basin is one of those hidden gems. The trail follows the North Saint Vrain Creek through deep forest for much of the way, passing several large cascades and a delightful waterfall along the way. During the final two miles, the trail leaves the river and begins a steep upward climb. Almost instantly the trees give way to open meadows overlooked by the jagged peak of Mount Alice, making the long journey more than worth the effort.
If you are dreaming of getting away from the crowds to enjoy the best that Rocky Mountain National Park has to offer, then consider a trip to Lake Nanita. It is not a hike for the faint of heart. The trail begins near the town of Grand Lake on the west side of the park at the North Inlet Trailhead. From here it makes its way eastward through dense forest passing the beautiful Cascade Falls near the half-way point.
Because the nearest campsite is nearly three miles down trail, Lake Nanita receives very few visitors, but as a result the area is pristine. The beauty of this area is impossible to convey. Andrews Peak and Ptarmigan Mountain rise high above the lake creating a mountain scene that will steal your breath and fill you with a deep sense of wonder. Here it becomes obvious why Rocky Mountain National Park exists, protecting this and many other treasures from our own destructive tendencies. This protection provides us with hope that these special places will remain in their natural state not only for the next hundred years, but for centuries to come.
Bridge to Thunder Pass
The Never Summer Mountains on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park are often overlooked. These high jagged peaks may seem forbidding, but there are several beautiful hikes to be found in this area which will take you up past old mining sites and into lush green meadows with dramatic views in every direction. One of the best of these is the hike to Thunder Pass. The seven-mile hike begins at the Colorado River Trailhead on the west side of the park.
Another wonderful area of the park to escape the crowds is Lost Lake. The 10-mile hike in discourages all but the hardiest of backpackers. The most popular hiking route begins at the Dunraven Trailhead, located east of the community of Glen Haven; however, due to the significant flooding in September 2013 it may take some time before this trail is restored. In the meantime, hikers can begin at McGraw Ranch and follow the North Boundary Trail for 4.6 miles to connect with the North Fork Trail. With the Lost Lake campsite as a base, day trips can be made to the many lakes and peaks in the area. The shelf located above Lost Lake is dotted with small tarns and at sunrise, they are perfect for catching the reflection of the peaks glowing in the warm morning light. The entire area is a photographer’s playground. In recent years several moose have made this area their home and often appear out of the willows when you least expect it.
Erik Stensland is a landscape photographer in Estes Park. He posts photos almost daily on his Facebook page, and more than 1,500 of his photos at two websites: ImagesofRMNP.com and MorningLight.us. Erik’s new book, Wild Light: A Celebration of Rocky Mountain National Park, releases September 3, 2014.<
When hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, or any wild place, please remember:
When heading downhill, step aside for hikers heading uphill. Uphill hiking requires more energy and momentum. Don’t make the climb more difficult by making the others stop for you.
Stay on the trail. Do not trample surrounding vegetation. If you must go off-trail, step on rocks or in areas with little plant growth.
Offer a friendly greeting to those you encounter. It will help you notice other people, which could be important if they or you go missing.
Turn off your smartphone or put it on the vibrate mode. Yell only in an emergency. Let the sounds of nature be your music.