Posts Tagged ‘Rocky Mountain National Park’

Backpacking RMNP, 14-16 July 2014

19 July 2014

Trip Summary

32 miles of hiking in the beautiful Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) over three days, with 3,800+ feet of altitude gain.

I’ve posted the photos from this trip to my Google+ site. They are pretty amazing.

Getting Ready

Last Fall, our first RMNP backpacking trip was washed out by severe monsoonal rain and storms (the blog post is here). I put together this trip to enable completing the “loop” I wanted to do last time.

I got the permit 01 March after settling in on the couch with my phone earpiece in, and started a sequence of dial-busy-hang up-repeat when the backcountry office opened at 0800 Mountain. It took 245 calls (I just went back to my Facebook post to verify) and 1.5 hours to get through and get the permit.

After my last RMNP hike up Flattop, where my breath was always short, I started some running exercises to prepare. This time, there were no issues. My permit was for seven total; we ended up hiking with five after a couple people dropped out for work or family issues.

We drove from OKC Saturday, leaving around noon and getting to Colorado Springs around 2100. We took a leisurely drive to Grand Lake on Sunday, getting to town around 1600 and going directly to the Backcountry Office for our permit.

Day 1

The crew got up Monday morning and had a fine breakfast in town, loaded up the backpacks in Lance’s car, and he hauled them up to the trailhead at the north end of town while the rest of us walked the 0.6 mile up there. We took a group picture and headed out.

Temperatures were perfect. We headed north towards Big Meadow, stopping for lunch on the north edge of the Meadows. About halfway along, we spotted a bull moose! Once we walked out a bit into the meadow, there were seven of his friends! Four of them were bulls! Very cool. We watched them for a while; how often are you able to do that?

We kept walking after a while, and on the northwest corner of the meadow, we got out first rain and hail. It was small hail, just chips, but it got our attention. We had stopped for a short break, and had noticed a cow moose and her little mooselet about 50 yards out into the meadow, and we had to watch for a bit.

At this point, we swung around to the east and started a gradual climb up to Granite Falls. There are campsites at Lower Granite Falls, and we were past the Falls at Granite Falls. Pick the campsite farthest to the east; it looks out onto a beautiful meadow.

We saw a number of backpackers along this trail; about four groups.

Camp had a couple huge logs split and made into tables (or benches) that were fine cooking and eating surfaces. We finished dinner, talked for a while while watching the meadow in the fading light, and crashed.

My dinner was Backpackers Pantry Santa Fe Chicken with Rice; I’ve had this meal a number of times, and enjoy it. Forgive the image, but for some reason this dinner tore my guts up chemically. Not in a painful way, but noxious at 0200. As my former E-4B friend Ray once said, “it’s really bad if you offend yourself”. I did. I hope it was just that particular package of food.

Day 1 ended up as a 9 mile hike, with 1540 ft of altitude gain.

Day 2

This day started fine for Lance. He was up early, and a moose walked right past him and right through camp. Very cool.

We got up the next morning at 0730 and had breakfast. I think it had rained a bit overnight, as all the tents were damp. We hung up the flys to dry stuff out, and took a side hike back down to Granite Falls. They were amazing!

We headed back up to camp, packed up, and left around 0930. It was a steady climb to Haynach camp, our days target. We passed through a burned area, and a couple pretty meadows. We passed two groups of backpackers, both out for dayhikes. Eventually we got to the Haynach turnoff, and headed north. This was pretty hard; it was steep. But we made good time, and got to camp around noon. We rested a couple minutes, and then got the tents put up, just as a storm rolled through. It rained and hailed repeatedly until around 1630. We stayed in our tents, had lunch, napped, or worked a couple Sudokus (in my case).

Camp had a lot of snowdrifts! I think that all of the tent sites were clear (although many were dampish). Several of the snowdrifts were 3+ ft high, and 20-40 ft long. A guy the next camp over had stuck his bear canister in a drift.

The rain finished around 1630, so we side hiked up to Haynach Lakes. These got us up to around 11000 ft, and were stunning! If we hadn’t had the rain, I would have liked trying to peakbag one of the peaks surrounding the Lakes. Next time. There were HUGE snowdrifts all over the place up there.

We had a nice dinner and talked for a while, then went to bed. My dinner was Backpackers Pantry beef stroganoff, it was a bit on the bland side but good.

It stormed on and off pretty much all night. No one had issues with tents or gear.

Day 2 ended up as a 2.8 mile hike, with an immediate loss of 165 feet (to the Falls), which we immediately got back, followed by 1000 ft more of altitude gain to get to our campsite. The side hike to Haynach Lakes was 2.3 miles roundtrip with a gain of 350 ft.

Day 3

This was going to be our hard day, we knew way in advance. Two people were killed by lightning the previous week in RMNP, and this day was going to be about 70% above tree line. We had seen storms every day since we arrived in the Front Range area Saturday. Our Rangers had warned us as well. So we were paranoid, and our plan was to be up early and try to make the Flattop Mountain trail junction before noon. It was also going to be a 10-mile day, with a lot of altitude gain early on.

We got up around sunrise and tried our best to dry off very wet and dirty tents and flys, get packed, and have some breakfast. None of our gear was dirty; the vestibules each of our tents have worked well. It was a bit chilly but not too cold. We headed out around 0730, losing the altitude we gained coming up the day before.

The the Climb started. We headed on east on Tonahutu trail, gaining altitude steadily. I don’t think there was a truly flat place on the trail. It was relentlessly UP. Some places the trail was cut with stairs, some places it was sloped, but it was always up.

We got above treeline about halfway up. Lots of snow, but none on the trail. We saw an elk herd on the tundra to the west of Ptarmigan Pass, it was about 50 strong. We weren’t too close.

Right before we passed a 12250 point to our south, we could see Spirit Lake far to the southwest. We pulled out our phones, and amazingly enough, had signal, so we all called our spouses to check in. Raegan hadn’t been feeling 100% when we left Monday, and now she was full-blown sick, and seriously dehydrated to the point she didn’t feel she could drive, but needed to go to the hospital. I immediately decided I had to be down there. We were headed that general direction anyway. I gave the guys options of staying on the original itinerary, or maybe just staying in our camp for that evening and hiking out the next day. Beer in Grand Lake was mentioned, I think. The crew made the decision to hike out. It would mean a long day, but we were already done with 95% of the uphill, the rest was contouring and downhill.

We got to the top of Tourmaline Gorge around 1115 and were just stunned by the depth and relief of that beautiful area. We were starting to see convection to the south, and that motivated us to keep moving. We ate candy and snacks on the move, and didn’t stop for lunch. We go to the Flattop junction at 1130, barely paused, and moved out on North Inlet trail. We were flat to down here, and really moved. I checked the GPS later, and found several points we were making 5.5 mph, darn near a jog.

We found a large snowfield a bit past the Flattop junction. It was several hundred yards long, and probably two feet deep. We post-holed our way through it, but didn’t accumulate much snow in our boots.

We saw numerous marmots and several pikas (and heard many more), in the rock areas. We passed several other snowfields, but none on the trail. Several of these were in ravines and had significant streams flowing out of them. Water, BTW, was not an issue this July day. There were numerous places to pump.

At one point, while we were on the “big switchbacks”, we smelled first, and then saw, four bull elk that were about 50 ft upslope from us. They were magnificent!

There isn’t a lot to say about most of the hike down. It was tough, not because of slope, but just length. We had planned on 10 miles already, and the additional mileage to town was almost 8 more.

We were below Cascade Falls when a series of rain showers and thunderstorms started rolling through. Here my rain gear was a bit too much; it was warm, and I had a fleece-lined rain jacket that made me sweat almost as much as the rain would make me wet.

We got to the Grand Lake trailhead at 1630, and were exhausted. The last couple miles were tough. I took a shower and took Raegan to the ER in Granby, where they rehydrated her. I was glad I had come back early.

Day 3 ended up as a 17.5 mile hike, with a starting loss of 368 feet, followed by 1850 ft of altitude gain, and an immediate loss of 2750 ft back to Grand Lake.

Things That Went Well

The Rangers in the Backcountry Office at RMNP rock. I got outstanding beta on our campsites when checking in, and in return, I went back and gave them back beta on trail conditions up high.

Critters! We saw moose, elk, deer, fox, pika, and marmot.

Food was well done.

Things That Could Be Improved

I carried too much colder weather gear. Normal temps in the mountains are in the range of 40s for lows to 70s for highs. Forecasts had been for lows in the upper 20s and highs in the 40s. Actuals were lows in the high 40s and highs in the mid-60s.

This meant that I carried a heavier 0F bag instead of my 20F bag. I carried a fleece-lined rain jacket, much heavier than my Frogg Toggs rain jacket, a base layer, a hoodie, a long-sleeve mock turtleneck, and some other stuff that probably added at least 3-4 lbs extra. All I really needed was my hoodie, or maybe the mock turtleneck, and my Frogg Toggs.

I carried something new for me, a 5×7 ft lightweight tarp. We didn’t really need it, but I put it up the first night anyway to experiment with it, and I think it is too small. I might find another one, or get a second 5×7 and tie them together to make a 10×7.

I tried to tone down the hike this time after several rounds of feedback, but I think this was still too tough. I should have had us enter at the Green Mountain trailhead off US34, then the Granite Falls target would have been more appropriate. Staying at Renegade, and side hiking Haynach, would probably have been smarter, and saved us a long climb with packs. I don’t know that I could do much with the big hike up to Flattop junction, except maybe stay at July instead of down at North Inlet Junction.

I think this would have been a better itinerary:

Day 1: Green Mountain around Big Meadow to Granite Falls camp. 5.3 miles and 1127 elevation gain.

Day 2: Renegade or Timeberline camp. Maybe layover here, then dayhike Haynach.

Day 3: Up and over Flattop to July. This would cut several miles off the day.

Day 4: July to Lake Solitude Cross-Country Area.

Day 5: Up and over Ptarmigan and Andrews and exit East Inlet, or dayhike Nanita and exit North Inlet.

This would have made a lot more sense in balancing out the effort needed.

Another alternative would be a three-day trip, say, up North Inlet to North Inlet Falls a couple nights, and dayhike up to Nanita; or North Inlet Falls to the cross-country area, and then up and over Ptarmigan/Andrews and down to Verna, then hike out East Inlet.

A three-day trip would allow a couple days of dayhiking, and doing that before the backpacking trip allows a little more acclimation.


I’m a little disappointed in having a second bust at RMNP. I did the right thing by heading back down early, but I know it was disappointing to the rest of the crew.

I’m glad we were able to complete most of the loop we missed due to the flooding last September. As I told Raegan later, the views were almost overwhelming, constantly changing, and even different perspectives within a couple hundred yards along the trail. There were lots of critters to marvel at. My hiking companions couldn’t have been better.

This Park, although relatively small, still has a huge untapped hiking potential. I will be back.

Hiking East Inlet Trail, RMNP, CO

18 July 2014

Yesterday Erin and I hiked almost 3 miles out-and-back on the East Inlet trail in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP).

I posted photos to my Google+ account here.

It was a straightforward hike; we wanted to see Adams Falls, and did, and we hoped to see moose in East Meadow. No luck there, but we saw a pretty doe.

There were two highlights, I thought. There is a stunning area that would be a perfect campsite or picnic area at the base area of the Falls. We also saw a pretty doe curled up in tall grass off the trail. East Meadow is beautiful.

Here is the hike path on a topo, annotated with where we went.

One thing to note: the trail as represented by the Garmin Mapsource program is quite a bit north of the actual path as shown by the GPS.

Here is an altitude plot.

There is a nice 80 foot climb to the Falls, and then we climbed back down to the base area. The scramble on the rocks was a lot of fun.

Now, there are a number of things on the plot above I don’t believe. Most of the walk was quite smooth. Notice the spikes of 20, 40, or 60 ft? No way. There’s a big drop of 50 ft right before a spike of 20 feet. Didn’t happen. At the end of the hike, we ended up back at the car, so the altitude should have been the same we started at. Not so much. I promise we didn’t step off a 60 foot bluff to get back.

I’m going to see if there is a software update for my GPS Map 60 that might address this. The GPS clearly has altitude issues.

Backpacking Rocky Mountain National Park, 07-09 Sep 2013

15 September 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.