A Weekend Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park

Labor Day may simply signify the end of the summer to some people, but to me the extended weekend grants another opportunity to travel to and explore another national park! Alex has had a longtime desire to move to Colorado, my love affair with mountains is only growing stronger with time, and the flight from Madison to Denver is a pleasant 2 hours, so it only made sense that we would take this weekend to bag Rocky Mountain National Park, so to speak.

If our trip to Arches and Canyonlands was all about taking short hikes and seeing as many highlights as possible our RMNP trip was the exact opposite. In the 3 days we were in the park we only made it to two destinations, and spent 22.4 miles hiking to get to those spots. 

Hike 1: Lone Eagle Peak

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I saw a photo of Lone Eagle Peak, named after the storied Charles Lindbergh (The Lone Eagle), on Instagram and that was it, I just knew I had to get there. After a short internet search I found that there are backcountry campsites at Mirror Lake and Crater Lake at the base of the picturesque mountain in the Indian Peaks Wilderness and applied for a permit, not really knowing what that hike entailed. “What did it entail?”, you ask. Well it entailed a 2000’ climb over 7 miles starting at over 9,000’. Not being very well adjusted to any sort of elevation since we hail from Madison, WI, a place squished by a glacier, the elevation alone was enough to get my blood pumping and not stop until we touched back down in Dane County Regional Airport. Add a 30 pound backpack and the incessant grade of the trail and you have yourself a strained Sonja! The hike ended up taking about 7 hours, which all things considered was a nice pace. We set up camp at Mirror Lake, positioned strategically in front of Lone Eagle Peak, ate our dinner of a Clif bar, stowed our bear canister in an appropriate place and explored the area for only about 20 minutes before the rain came. Just our luck! Since we were exhausted anyways we decided to nap for a few hours before our attempt at night photography and star trails.

My alarm went off at 9:30pm and for a second I contemplated turning it off and sleeping for the remainder of the night but then I caught a glimpse of the clear sky and decided otherwise. We got out of the tent and stood in awe. The storm was gone, the clouds had almost entirely cleared and we were standing under a canopy of the most stars I’d ever seen. And to top it all off the Milky Way was out in all its glory. Thanks to the moon’s tardy rise there would be a few hours of a dark sky, perfect for a Milky Way time lapse. After I set up my camera equipment for the time lapse the plan was to head back into the tent and set another alarm for a few hours later at which time I would gather it. But, do things ever go as planned?! We weren’t in the tent for a few minutes when we saw our neighbors’ flashlight around the shore where I had my camera set up. Being as paranoid as I am there was no way I would allow my camera to sit on the shore, unattended, snapping photos, while I slept in the tent. So, the next best solution was to cowboy camp. I grabbed my sleeping bag and pillow and laid down right on shore next to my camera. Alex followed me and we spent the next couple of hours laying on the shore, watching the stars, contemplating and talking about life, as my camera quietly opened and closed its shutter every 30 seconds. Finally, after a couple of hours, the cold and exhaustion started to get to me and I decided to stop the camera an hour early. I’m still happy I did. While an extra hour would have added a few seconds to my time lapse I was extremely happy with the results as is and I was granted another hour of sleep, which I desperately needed as we planned to awake before sunrise anyways.

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Not soon after I laid my head down my alarm was telling me it was time to wake up again! We headed to Crater Lake to watch the sunrise and caught some beautiful alpenglow to start the day. After sunrise we packed up camp and began retracing our steps back to the trailhead. Thankfully the entire hike was downhill so it was comparatively a breeze to the previous day’s hike! We also took the opportunity to stop at waterfalls that lined the trail that we missed on the hike up.

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After we reached our car and devoured the beef jerky we didn’t take on the hike (after we bought it we realized that bears probably like beef jerky just as much as we do, if not more) we headed to the Beaver Meadows backcountry office to pick up our permit for the next leg of our trip.

Hike 2: Chasm Lake

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After our stop at the Beaver Meadows backcountry office we drove to the Longs Peak trailhead where we would start our hike to Chasm Lake. We stayed in the Goblins Forest backcountry site to make the next morning’s hike to Chasm Lake shorter. After a strenuous 1 mile hike, and I am not using the word "strenuous" sarcastically, we made it to Goblins Forest. The 4 mile hike to Chasm Lake has a 2000’ elevation gain so to say the entire hike is steep is an understatement and we had just hiked 7 miles already. I needed to stop frequently to catch my breath but we eventually made it to Goblins Forest and we set up camp and ate our dinner of a Clif bar (a different flavor than the previous night's dinner to keep things interesting). While searching for a place to store our bear canister I found a lot of bear scat and a Ziploc bag full of fish. Yes, fish. It appears somebody threw a bag of a bears favorite food within 20 yards of our campsite. It was a little disconcerting so I moved it further from our camp and planned to pick it up the next day on our hike out but never ended up finding it. I hid it too well I guess. Or the bear's found it... 

After that I decided to take an evening nap with the intention of waking up to pack my bag for our 3am departure time the next morning. It seems I was so exhausted though I slept through the entire night. Our alarm went off at 3am the next morning and I quickly threw my bag together before we started our hike to Chasm Lake. It was another 3 miles from Goblins Forest to Chasm Lake and we were going to do the entire thing in the dark. Since the trail to Chasm Lake is the same trail climbers use to make it to Longs Peak (the only 14er in RMNP) we were not alone and the company was a comfort. A mile away from the lake the trail split and the Longs Peak climbers went one way and we went another. We were entirely alone except for 4 Longs Peak climbers in the distance who were going to climb the sheer east face accessed via Chasm Lake. It was lucky we had their headlamps to follow because the trail was dark and the last tenth of a mile is unmarked bouldering. We made it unknowingly within 20 yards of the lake before we completely lost the trail and our fellow hikers' headlamps because it was so dark. The bouldering seemed too precarious to safely continue doing so we hunkered down and took shelter from the piercing wind behind the biggest boulder we could find. After some time of teeth chattering and shivering despite the rock shelter some more climbers caught up to us and offered to lead us the rest of the way. We were a bit embarrassed when they pointed out a cairn 15 feet away and lead us a mere 20 yards to our destination. We made it to Chasm Lake with over a half an hour to spare before sunrise and we were freezing. We were underdressed for the weather. By a long shot. We knew it would be cold but we didn’t know how windy it would be. And without the sun to warm us we were wind battered and miserable, despite hunkering down behind yet another gigantic boulder for shelter. Finally the sun began to rise, light began to illuminate the east face of Longs Peak and suddenly it was all worth it. Since everyone else on the trail was headed to Longs Peak we had all of Chasm Lake to ourselves. We gleefully wandered around the rocky shore and took photos and tried to ignore the fact that the wind was still pummeling us and we could no longer feel our fingers.

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Once the sun was higher in the sky and we had succumbed to enough wind battering for one morning we decided to head back. And thankfully we did. The benign looking clouds I happily took long exposures of turned menacing. Rain began to fall on us within 15 minutes of leaving the lake. We picked up the pace and bee-lined it for the treeline as it would grant us some shelter from a storm. As we descended below the treeline and towards the trailhead the skies turned sunny and pleasant and hikers were happily beginning the hike up, seemingly unaware of the dismal weather at the top. When we reached the bottom we told the ranger of the rain at the top and were informed that rain had turned to snow! A wave of relief washed over us as we walked to our car and warmed up. Another successful national park trip under our belts! We will definitely make it a point to get back to RMNP. There are so many scenic hikes there. Sky Pond, you’re next on our list! 

See more photos from my adventures in Rocky Mountain National Park HERE!