Backpacking Rocky Mountain National Park, 07-09 Sep 2013

Hiking summary: 25+ miles over three days, with over 4700 ft of altitude gain, massive views, hail, and an abrupt end due to bad weather.

Photos from the trip are posted here on Google+.


We all arrived in the Loveland/Fort Collins area on Friday evening, 06 September. The Omaha part of the crew stayed in Fort Collins, and we met for dinner there. The next morning, we met at my hotel in Loveland, moved all the backpacks to my rental car, and we headed out to Estes Park.

We got to the Park about 45 minutes later, and went immediately to the Backcountry Office. Our initial selection was a trip that I found in Backpacker magazine called the “Rocky Mountain Grand Loop”. When I mentioned this to the Ranger in the Backcountry Office, I got an earful about why that route was a bad idea: both due to a high, exposed crossing of the Divide, and due to ice on Long’s Peak. At the same time, Lance was getting an earful of the same advice from a well-informed volunteer at the Visitor Center. In fact, there were two rescues there the week before, and one guy died. That sounded like good advice to me, so we changed the route to a loop that had three segments; two were Continental Divide Trail (CDT) segments, and then a south-to-north segment that paralleled US 34 on the west side of the Park. This route is about 8 miles shorter than the Grand Loop, so our trail days dropped from six to five.

They do things differently at RMNP. At Yosemite, the NPS rents bear canisters for $5 no matter how long the trip is; the proceeds go to the Yosemite Association. At RMNP, the NPS does no canister rental, you go to outfitters to rent the canisters. After visiting several places, we found a guy who sold all of us canisters for $5 more than the rental price at other places in town.

Other things that are different. No showers in any of the campsites. There is no food service in the Park, except at the Alpine Visitor Center (11,000+ ft). No groceries or places to buy supplies. We adapted, of course.

We managed to secure a campsite at Moraine Campgrounds, on the first come first served “B Loop”. It was a decent campsite. Two of our tents were deemed by the camp host to be on “vegetation”, so we were obliged to move them. NBD.

We did some exploration of the Park the rest of the day. We went up to the Alpine Visitor Center for some staggering views and white-knuckle driving along the road. We did a couple hikes totaling about a a mile off the road, saw a herd of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, some elk, marmots, and pika.

We hit a restaurant in town for dinner. On the way there, a herd of 70+ elk came through Moraine campsite. The bull was in the process of fending off a couple younger rivals, and it was fascinating to watch him bugle hot death at the rivals, and do some serious herding of his herd. Eventually, about 20 of the elk went around him and trotted off to the NE. The rest crossed the camp to Moraine Meadow. After we left, we drove out of the campsite, and the missing 20 crossed the road right in front of us, a private show, and then rejoined the rest of the herd. Immensely interesting to watch. The bugling of the big bull sounded a lot to me like the old Godzilla of the movies. Bugling by cows and calves was a lot higher in pitch.

After dinner, we came back and talked a bit, and hit the sack. Every time I woke up, I heard the bugling in the distance, all cows I think. An owl also hooted right over the camp at one point.

Day 1

We got up and started moving around 0615. I think we were all excited; I know I was. We headed out to the trailhead, arriving at Bear Lake around 0800. I loaded my fuel bottles up, we shouldered our packs, and headed out.

It was a hard walk up to Flattop Mountain. As you can see from the altitude plot, it’s about 2700 ft over 4.75 miles. The trail is steady up. You don’t get any level until you walk down the other side of a peaklet and traverse over to the last climb up to the top. There was no water after we left Bear Lake. We saw a number of dry watercourses as we walked up. Maybe there was water in those in the spring or early summer. I carried two liters of water up, and I could have easily consumed both on the way up. As it was, I ended up at the top with about half a Nalgene.

Our moving average for the day was 1.1 mph. It was slow going up, of course. We took lots of short breathers (we were all flatlanders, of course), and two longer breaks.

Once we got to the top of Flattop, we rested on the Continental Divide and had a lunch break. It was very cool up there at 12300 ft. We had been watching the weather around us since about 1000, and by the top, we had active weather in every quadrant except the southwest, which was luckily where we were headed.

We headed out after about a half hour rest. The slope was generally downhill but more flat than the climb up. We were burning along here; at one point the GPS showed a max speed of 5.1 mph. Maybe the thunder overhead was motivating us. We walked for more than a mile exposed. Eventually we got to a north-facing slope, and started dropping very quickly. This lead to a set of very steep switchbacks. About halfway down these, it started to rain, and switched over to hail after about 1 minute. The hail lasted about five minutes, and was pea sized, with a couple larger. The main effect of the rain was to make the trail bloody slick. The slope of the ground away from us was about 60 degrees, so a slip would have been pretty dangerous. We kept moving pretty quickly through all this. Once we started on the switchbacks, we finally ran into a number of streams, so water was not an issue.

The switchbacks eventually get to the forest along the drainage. This trail follows the contour of the hill for a while, and gets to a really steep set of switchbacks. The bottom of the switchbacks is where the camp is. You have to cross the stream out of the canyon you were just in, and go back and up a bit to find Pine Martin camp.

The camps are pretty far above the nearby creek, but are very pretty. We got camp set up quickly with Sun peeking out from the overcast to the west. Water was pumped and filtered, boiled, and had dinner. There were no mosquitoes (yea!). The camp surface was some exposed rocks, but most of it was very soft dirt that was easy to sleep on. There were LOTS of rocks a couple inches deep, that made putting tent stakes in a bit of a problem. We went to bed right about sunset. It rained a couple times overnight.

Summary: 10.5 miles, 3267 ft of elevation gain, net 0 ft gain/loss.

Day 2

We got up a bit later than the day before, about 0730. Breakfast was consumed quickly. We hung up tent flys to let them dry out a bit. We headed out about 0900. Once back on the main trail, you contour along generally downhill. The trail pops up several times. We got sprinkled on several times. This trail has a number of waterfalls along it. One in particular was in a narrow slot, and I ended up putting on water shoes and walking across the stream using a trekking pole I borrowed from Lance.

When we got near our second night camp, Summerland, we followed the first sign we saw off through the meadow, but didn’t find the open campsite. We studied the map closely, and decided we needed to walk farther along. We found the proper camp (Summerland Group) at about 1530.

I walked right past a moose while headed for Summerland Group. It was 10 feet off the trail, and I was so single-mided that I roared right past it. Lance got my attention and I got a chance to see her through the trees 100 ft away.

One note: we looked at a map at an outfitter in Grand Lake, and it showed the Summerland Group campsite, while our NatGeo map did not. The camp description that came with our permit clearly showed the Group camp as well (which I noted while laying in my tent later on that evening :)). I like those notes that the Backcountry office provided, BTW.

We had just made it into camp and dropped our packs, and as soon as the tents came out we got seriously rained on. Huge drops and intense rain. We kept working on our tents, and as soon as they were up, in we went, along with our gear. I changed into dry stuff in the tent, and then put on my rain gear, and came out again after the rain let up, about a half hour later.

Justin noticed that he had cell service, which was sort of cool. After talking it over, we decided to walk the 1.5 miles into town for dinner. We had a really good New Mexican dinner. We ate out on the deck, until the wind suddenly picked up, and rain poured down. It got quite chilly. After a bit, we decided to head back to camp. We got there about sunset, and headed for bed again.

It rained five or six times overnight. I also woke up at one point to roll over, and distinctly heard a tree fall! It was nowhere near us. Justin heard it also, he reported the next morning.

Summary: 11.3 miles, 2058 ft of elevation loss, with another 1012 ft of elevation gain, for a net loss of 1088 ft.

Day 3

We got up around 0715. Everything was wet, and a lot of stuff was dirty from the huge raindrops making small ejecta of dirt on to the tents and gear. I used one of the dish towels I carry to wipe it all down, making the towel very dirty.

We packed up and headed out. We had a recommendation for a breakfast place in town, so we decided to have breakfast there as well. We walked about 1.4 miles to the trailhead, where the going-north trailhead was. We dropped our packs under cover next to a latrine, and headed into town.

While we were in town the night before, I got a weather update that I did not like. We also talked to a local who ran an outfitter in Grand Lake, who talked about dropping temps and heavy rain. The NWS forecast called for heavy rain for the entire day (this was Tuesday), and worse, severe weather for Wednesday and Thursday. We would be climbing steadily all three days, and camping just inside treeline on Wednesday, then being exposed above treeline most of the day Thursday. I kept thinking that severe weather and lightning and being above treeline didn’t mix.

I don’t mind hiking in the rain. We all had the gear for it. The only thing I might have that would have helped was a tarp to be able to protect the gear during setup and takedown, and to cook under. But I was worried about the exposure above treeline.

So I made the decision to call the rest of the trip off. It was a hard choice, but I think that the safety risk assessment I made was borne out by what actually happened.

So this led to another issue. How to get back around to Bear Lake, where our car was parked? No taxi service in town. The RMNP shuttles don’t come around to the Grand Lake side. The outfitter folks offered to call around to see if someone was headed to Estes Park. I did a Google search and got Avalanche Car Rental in Granby, 16 miles south. Janet the owner agreed to rent us a minivan for one day for a very reasonable price, and further, after hearing our situation, she drove up to Grand Lake to pick us up! THANKS! We hung out in the city picnic shelter downtown for a couple hours while we waited. We took her back to Granby and headed out.

The driving conditions in the Park as we headed along US 34 to the east side of the Park were less than ideal. At about 10000 feet, we found ourselves in near-whiteout conditions due to being in the clouds, and with the occasionally gusty wind we had quite the white-knuckle drive (we would have been walking in that all day Wednesday and Thursday if we had stayed on the trail). We got over to the east side of the park around 1500, got our car from Bear Lake trailhead, and made it back to Estes Park around 1700. There were no campsites to be had, so we got rooms at the Comfort Inn (thanks, Justin), had dinner, and then checked in.

I spread my wet stuff out all over the room, fired up the gas fireplace in the room, and generally relaxed. Outside, it kept raining.

Summary: 3.5 miles, 580 ft of elevation loss, with another 459 ft of elevation gain, for a net loss of 120 feet.

Here are the various maps for the hike:

The next morning, we packed our stuff up and headed out in both my car and the minivan. It pretty much rained the entire time. We drove back to Granby to drop the minivan off, then drove back to Estes Park, with another white-knuckle drive both ways, getting there around 1100. We continued on to the hotel in Loveland, got stuff sorted out into Lances car, and the Omaha guys headed that way, while I headed to Colorado Springs. It rained pretty much the entire way there.

My intention was to go to Colorado Springs a couple days for day hiking, but US 24 was closed by the same flooding situation that was hitting Denver, Boulder, and Estes Park that afternoon. So I changed my flight out to Thursday morning and headed home.

Things That Went Well

We saw a lot of critters! Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, elk, deer, bear, marmots, turkey, bunnies, squirrels, birds, pika, some fish, moose (both bull and cow), and I’m sure other stuff I don’t remember. Lots of critters!

Hiking was done well by all. It was hard up and over Flattop, but that’s the thing about mountains. The trail was rocky and hard on ankles and feet, though.

We were lucky that the nice lady in Granby drove the 16 miles to get us. I seriously thought about renting a bike, as the run from Grand Lake to Granby is mostly downhill, and I thought I could bike the 16 miles in a couple hours.

Things That Went Not So Well

Obviously, having to call the hike at three days instead of five sucked. The deteriorating weather would have caused all kinds of problems, from our stuff just not drying out, to perhaps making the trail impassable, to being above treeline in lightning. If we had spent another day, we would have been stuck in Estes Park.

I’m surprised at the lack of connectivity between the east and west sides of the Park.

I made a bad tactical decision in sticking with Bear Lake as a starting point. It meant that the complete hike would have two assaults of Flattop Mountain, one of which was unnecessary. Better to drive over to the west side and park the car at Grand Lake, and start out and end there.

Closing Thoughts

I was seriously in self-doubt mode about calling this trip early. Since then, watching the news, I am convinced it was the right decision. I think we would have had a heck of a time with stream crossings due to the huge amount of rain. Also, making the exposed crossing of Flattop would have just been foolhardy. I pulled NWS lightning data for Thursday, and there were over 100 lightning strikes in the area around Flattop. As it turns our, if we had stayed the course, we would have been coming in to Estes Park after all the roads leading out had been closed by flooding.

I am going to complete this hike in the late Spring or early Summer, and this time I am going to start in Grand Lake. There may be an advantage in that I can get there a bit more directly from the Denver area, as Granby and then on to Grand Lake is accessible from I-70 out of Denver.

Lance, Luke, and Justin were a great hiking team. No one griped, and there wasn’t a single harsh word. Well, except for the hail.

The scenery is stunning.

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2 Responses to “Backpacking Rocky Mountain National Park, 07-09 Sep 2013”

  1. Backpacking RMNP, 14-16 July 2014 | Bill Hensley's Random Blog Says:

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