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Backpacker Magazine – August 2011

Rip & Go: Tonahutu Loop - Rocky Mountain National Park, CO

Cross elk-filled woods and bighorn- busy flats on this park's quiet side.

by: Casey Lyons

View of 12,274-foot Snowdrift Peak (Casey Lyons)
View of 12,274-foot Snowdrift Peak (Casey Lyons)
View From Flattop (Deborah Stanley)
View From Flattop (Deborah Stanley)

Take it With You
Download a printable PDF of this entire weekend.

GPS-Enabled Trip Report
See this trip on a map, download it to your phone, GPS, or computer, and more.

Key Skill:  Using a bear canister 
The park requires countermeasures to keep resident black bears from becoming habituated to human food. Use this guide to load, haul, and store a canister properly.

Load Bear canisters are generally smaller than the stuffsacks you may be used to. Keep yours organized by layering meals in reverse order (last meal first). The first day’s food doesn’t need to fit inside.
At night: Save room for smellables (including toiletries, sunscreen, and bug spray—double-bagged in zip-tops to prevent food-contaminating spills).
On the trail: Remove snack items to keep them handy, and pack the canister against your back toward the middle of the pack for the easiest carry.

Leave Pick a spot 70 steps downwind from your (or anyone else’s) campsite. Set the canister in a flat area with a safe runout (avoiding spots near cliffs, steep slopes, and rivers so the canister doesn’t roll out of reach if a bear decides to bat it around). Don’t pin the canister between rocks or the arms of a fallen tree, which could enable a bear to lever off the top.

Food Choose grub that won’t damage easily when crammed. General tips: Squeeze all of the air out of zip-top bags before packing to avoid their popping open. Freeze-dried trail meals pack tighter vertically than they do horizontally. Don’t fold tortillas; curve them against the edge.

See This: Glaciation Line
Flattop Mountain (mile 13.9) offers one of the park’s best views of the contrast between glacially carved terrain (east of the Continental Divide) and mountains the earth-shaping ice floes never touched (low-sloped tundra to the west). Beginning about 15,000 years ago, the dual processes of plucking (snatching up boulders) and abrasion (sanding off bedrock), carved the steep amphitheaters to the east (pictured), often leaving behind remnant snowfields and tiny alpine lakes.

Locals Know
The Tonahutu Trail (this trail’s first leg) is the final section of a little-known back way to the 14,259-foot summit of Longs Peak. The 42.4-mile Rocky Mountain Grand Loop departs from Grand Lake on the East Inlet Trail. Cross the Continental Divide at the Boulder-Grand Pass (12,061 feet) and aim for Thunder Lake for the first night’s camp. Bushwhack northwest toward Lion Lake No. 1, and routefind toward North Ridge, heading just south of Castle Lake. Gain Longs’ summit ridge via Keplinger Couloir, and join the famous Keyhole Route for 300 slow-going and slabby vertical feet, called the Homestretch, to the top. Descend among the peak-bagging throng to Glacier Gorge (night two), via the North Longs Peak Trail, then swing west back over the Divide on the Flattop Mountain Trail, and close the loop on the Tonahutu Trail. Download GPS data at

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