Away from the Grind

Rocky Mountain National Park: Centennial Celebration

by Roger Ludwig

The information in this piece may be out of date. I have moved away from Cheyenne and am no longer maintaining this site. You may leave a comment if you wish. Useful comments will continue to be posted.

Rocky turned 100 on January 26th.

Rocky being Rocky Mountain National Park.   1915 was the year President Woodrow Wilson signed on, making it the nation’s 9th.National Park.   The official dedication ceremony was held on September 4, 1915.  So think of this year’s spring and summer as one long birthday celebration for Rocky.

How can you best join the celebration?  Well, by breathing it in.  Pine scented air, moist with rushing snowmelt.  Open meadows.  Towering granite peaks.  Bright sunshine.

Take a hike.  But above all, just sit for a spell.  For all my incessant walking I can’t tell you how many of my most memorable experiences outdoors happen when I have stopped.   Stopped to rest, to cook, to draw.

Al Walsh of JustTrails and I have put together six hikes, two easy ones, two moderate and two hard ones that will give you reason to celebrate.  Plus a seventh short backpack that is, well, amazing.

Crowd Control

The park is beloved.  Being within two hour’s drive from the Denver metro-mess, visitation is soaring.  Last year it was the fifth most visited national park, with 3.4 million visitors.   That is just below Yellowstone at 3.5.  Considering that RMNP is only 415 square miles and Yellowstone is 3,468 you can see that on a given summer’s day there are a lot of people about.

Because of the crowds and the fees I once avoided the park, going only when visiting relatives expressed interest.  But I knew I was missing a lot:  great scenery and the best wildlife viewing within two hour’s drive.   So I began exploring the park in earnest, learning how to have a great wilderness experience and deal with the people.

Here’s a few tips:

*First, walk a mile.   After only one mile most of the crowd is gone.

*Second, start early if you can.   Pack breakfast and lunch in your day pack and get out before seven.  Sip your coffee by the stream.

*Third, use the shuttle bus when it is going where you want to go.   It’s the only way into the Bear Lake area, the hub for some of the finest walks, waterfalls and lakes.  A hiker shuttle begins at the Estes Park Visitor Center, giving you a free lift to the Park & Ride where you can board the Bear Lake or Moraine Park Shuttle.   When the bus unloads at your stop, go.  Get a little ahead of the crowd.

*Lastly, do your best to enjoy the people enjoying nature.  You can find real solitude in Rocky but it is rare.   Park people are usually the best people to be around anyway.

You may want to get a hiking map.   Trails Illustrated Rocky Mountain by National Geographic is the classic.   For guide books, Rocky Mountain National Park:  The Complete Hiking Guide by Lisa Foster is stellar.  To download a free map onto your smart phone and use its navigational tools see

Easy hike #1:  Waterfall Extravaganza – The Wild Basin Trail  

The Wild Basin Trail passes two fine falls, Copeland (lower and upper) and the Calypso Cascades on its way to Ouzel Falls, one of the park’s largest.   Copeland is simple and sublime, the zen of falls.  Calypso, named for a deep pink orchid often found nearby, is a 200 foot splash, run, tumble and fall of dancing water.    Ouzel falls is hidden in a granite cranny, a 50-foot wall of water.   It is 2.7 miles from the trailhead.

The Wild Basin Entrance is considerably south of Estes Park off of CO-7.   From Cheyenne I like to take I-25 to CO-66 at Longmont, drive through Lyons catching CO-7 to Allenspark.   Continue past Allenspark 2.2 miles to the Wild Basin Entrance on your left.   You’ll pass a fee station where they may be able to give you parking ideas.   This is a popular area and parking can be a patience tester.

Easy hike #2:  Grand Views – Grand Ditch Trail

Now this is a way to avoid the crowd.  The Grand Ditch Trail, on the northwest side of Rocky, follows the nearly level bank of a water diversion, cutting through the lower flanks of the Never Summer Mountains.   The Colorado River has its start just below you; the Kawuneeche Valley stretches ahead in expansive views.

Start at the La Poudre Pass ranger station and walk as far as you’d like and return the way you came.   If you want a bit more variety a loop can be made by going downstream on the Thunder Pass Trail to the Colorado River Trail, going north past the Little Yellowstone Canyon back to the Grand Ditch.

This La Poudre Pass entrance gets few visitors.  It’s about 3 hours from Cheyenne, going south on I-25, exiting at Wellington to follow CO 1 to US 287.   Go north (right) on 287 to CO 14 at Ted’s Place, then west through the winding Poudre River canyon 53 miles.   Turn left on gravel Long Draw Road, FS 156 to its end just before the park entrance.  You can walk in for free.

Moderate all day hike #1:  Beautiful Mills Lake and the grand gorge – Glacier Gorge Trail 

A visit to Mills Lake is in itself a celebration.   Go, too, to pay respect to Enos Mills.  Mills championed the park’s creation, guiding hikers, writing essays, traveling and speaking tirelessly.   At age 14 he was sent away to Estes Park from his family in Kansas to recover from tuberculosis.   The mountain air saved his life.  He went on to climb Longs Peak 140 times.  In return he saved the area for all of us.

Take Glacier Gorge Trail.   You’ll pass Alberta Falls, then Glacier Falls to gaze into the reflected towers in Mills Lake, only 2-½ miles from the trailhead but a climb of 700 feet.   After admiring the views and drinking a toast to Mr. Mills, if you have the will and the time continue the additional 2 miles up to Black Lake.  Views of Longs Peak and the Continental Divide are thrilling.

Enter Rocky through Estes Park on US 36, going to the Park & Ride where you board the shuttle toward Bear Lake.  Exit at Glacier Gorge Junction and start your walk.   All trail intersections are well signed.

Moderate All Day Hike #2:  Magnificent Silent Cirque – Mirror Lake

A vast cirque carved into the Mummy Range, Mirror Lake is majestic.  Sublime.  Inspiring.  I’ve never been there.  But that’s the way the few who have describe it.   Not only is the scenery fantastic, you might just have it to yourself, unless you go on the weekend I’ll be there.  It’s not that hard to reach, just 6.1 miles and 1000 vertical feet.  But the remote trailhead in the northwest corner of the park keeps most visitors away.

Start at the Corral Creek Trailhead hiking east 1 mile to the Big South Trail.  Go south on Big South 0.3 mile to the Mummy Pass Trail where you’ll go east for 3.2 miles to the Mirror Lake Trail.  Go north 1.6 miles to Mirror Lake.

The trailhead is a three-hour drive from Cheyenne, following the directions to the Grand Ditch Trail above.   The Corral Creek Trailhead is on the left before you reach Long Draw Reservoir.   Entering the park here is free.  Since it is so far, get an early start or camp at one of the Forest Service campgrounds nearby, Long Draw or Grand View.  Tents only, first-come, first-served.

Challenging All Day Hike #1:  Hike to the Divide – Flattop Mountain Trail

Some rate this hike as one of the top ten in the entire Rocky Mountain range.   It’s Rocky’s only maintained trail to a high mountain top and the views are transcendent.   On the way you can stare down into Dream, and later, Emerald Lake.  You’ll stand on the Continental Divide, gazing at Longs and a dozen other peaks.   Walk a bit from the highpoint and you can look down into a glacier.

Start at busy Bear Lake taking the Flattop Mountain Trail 4.4 miles to the large, flat summit.   One half mile along the trail note a trail junction to Bierstadt Lake.  Make a sharp left, continuing on to Flattop Mountain.  One half mile further is another junction.   Again stay left.  Soon the switchbacks begin for what is a 2,874 foot elevation ascent.

At the summit many continue on to top Hallett Peak following a user-made trail.  There is some boulder climbing involved, an additional 0.6 miles and 800 vertical feet or so, looking down into Tyndall Glacier along the way.

Enter Rocky through Estes Park on US 36, going to the Park & Ride where you catch the shuttle to its end at Bear Lake.  This hike is a long climb.   Remember to drink every half hour, rest and eat something every hour whether you feel like it or not. You’ll make it without bonking.

Challenging All Day Hike #2:  Into the Mummys’ Heart – Lawn Lake Trail

The Lawn Lake Trail begins at Horseshoe Park above Fall River, the site of Rocky’s dedication ceremony.  A plaque marks the spot.  Lawn Lake, a popular destination for horseback trips, is at tree-line in the Mummy Range.

Further along the trail are the very special Crystal Lakes with their thrilling rock backdrop.  If you have the spunk you can continue to “the Saddle,” between craggy Hagues Peak and Fairchild Mountain for big views.

Take the Lawn Lake Trail 6.3 miles and 2,447 feet up to Lawn Lake, 1.6 miles and 500 feet more to Crystal and 0.7 miles and 900 more to the Saddle.   The trail follows the Roaring River with impressive overlooks into the ragged canyon.  In 1982 the old dam at Lawn Lake broke spewing an angry torrent of water, rock and trees down the river, killing three people and damaging many businesses in Estes Park.

From Estes Park drive US-34, the Fall River road, into the park.  At Old Fall River Road turn right.   The trailhead is there, on the right side.  Finding a parking slot can be tough.   There is no shuttle to this trailhead.

Extra:  A lovely little weekend backpack – North Inlet Trail to Lake Nanita

If you’d like to up your celebration to an overnight consider this trip to two of my all-time favorite lakes, Nokoni and Nanita.   This is the best of Rocky plus solitude.

Start your Saturday with a six-mile backpack on the North Inlet Trail to your camp at North Inlet Falls.  Spend the night deep in the trees beside a rushing spectacle of cool water.   Early Sunday morning day hike to Lake Nokoni and then on to Lake Nanita on the Lake Nanita Trail, 3.2 miles.

These two remote lakes are high—at timberline– and big, with walls and pinnacles of towering granite all around.   The Lake trail is a fine piece of trail construction with well-placed switchbacks but the Park Service is no longer maintaining it.  Dozens of deadfalls now cross the trail.   No place for short pants.

When you visit be sure to check out the outlet of Lake Nanita.   Wall-to-wall trout.   Sorry, no fishing at the spawning ground.    Day hike back to your camp, grab your pack and head out.   What a way to spend the weekend.

The trailhead is at the town of Grand Lake.  From there take West Portal Road (278) east to CR- 663 and go north to the trailhead.   You can get there by driving from Estes Park over Trail Ridge Road, US-34, or by going through Laramie and down through Woods Landing and Walden  to Grand Lake, avoiding the park entrance fee.

To camp you need a permit.  Download a “Backcountry Camping Guide” from the Park Service at:  Complete a “Trip Planning Worksheet” for North Inlet Falls (079) or, as a second choice, Pine Martin (080).   You’ll get a reservation in the mail.

Rocky requires use of a bear canister, a plastic bear-proof cylinder to store food.  They can be rented by the day from any Estes Park or Grand Lake sporting goods store.

The morning of your trip, between 8:00 and 10:00 am (after 10:00 your reservation can be given to someone else!), pick up your permit at one of two ranger stations, either Beaver Meadows Visitor Center on Highway 36 west of Estes Park, CO or at the Kawuneeche Visitor Center on Highway 34, north of Grand Lake, CO.  You will pay $20 for the permit, no matter how many people or how many nights.  A ranger will brief you on current conditions and park rules and will give you a detailed map of your camp site.

So join the celebration of Rocky’s first 100 years.

Enos Mills wrote, “A National Park is an island of safety in this riotous world. Splendid forests, the waterfalls that leap in glory, the wild flowers that charm and illuminate the earth, the wild sheep of the sky-line crags, and the beauty of the birds, all have places of refuge which parks provide.”  May you, too, find some refuge in Rocky this celebratory summer.













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