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Backpacker Magazine – August 2009

Full Circle: The Rocky Mountain Grand Loop

Follow a long-forgotten loop in Rocky Mountain National Park across the Continental Divide, through moose-infested meados, and up Longs Peak via a rarely climbed route.

by: Dougald MacDonald

Terrain south of Longs Peak (Airphotona - Jim Wark)
Terrain south of Longs Peak (Airphotona - Jim Wark)
East Inlet Creek (<a href=IMAGESOFRMNP.COM" height="260" width="445">
The Keyhole (Jonathan Dorn)
The Keyhole (Jonathan Dorn)

INSIDER'S GUIDE: Rocky Mountain National Park

HIKE IT: Your Guide to the Grand Loop
Explore the quieter side of "Colorado's park" on the author's historically inspired route.

video icon VIDEO: Fly the Trail
Explore the quieter side of Rocky Mountain National Park with writer Dougald MacDonald on this historically inspired route up Longs Peak.


Avocado or peanut butter? I linger over the choice of bagel toppings, feeling no rush to smear, pack, and sprint for the summit of Longs Peak. On the opposite (northeast) side of the mountain, hundreds of storm-wary climbers undoubtedly left the standard trailhead before dawn, hoping to beat the inevitable midday lightning strikes. Not so for this lazy climber. I'm propped on a boulder by my tent, relishing the solitude. From my camp in the lonely southern side of the park, it's just 1.5 miles to the summit, and I know I can top out by noon, even with a late start. Might as well slather another bagel with avocado and refill my French press. I've climbed a dozen-plus routes up Longs, but never from the south. Few people do–they're scared off by the bushwhack approach and a 1,600-foot crawl up a scree-filled gully. But while researching a book about the 14,259-foot peak, I'd lucked into an infinitely more interesting way to reach the south face, one pioneered by two speed-hiking, Depression-era guides.

Hull Cook and Clerin Zumwalt worked at the old Boulderfield Shelter Cabin, a two-story stone hut at 12,750 feet, in the early 1930s. Every summer morning, they'd wake at 4 a.m., lead two summit climbs, and pocket $1 each. The routine was fun but grueling; it left the two little time to explore the rest of the 265,770-acre park. Until, that is, they schemed the ultimate mountain fix: a 43-mile loop across the Continental Divide and back, ending with a rare ascent of Longs from the south. The caveat? They only had one day. Like Cook and Zumwalt, I'd spent most of my 25 "Rocky" years climbing Longs and other peaks. Now ready to see the park's remoter edges, I decided to retrace Cook and "Zumie's" route–but not like those fast-and-lighters. Shouldering a 35-pound pack, I would savor every step of the journey, averaging a leisurely seven miles per day. The grand finale: an ascent of Longs via Keplingers Couloir.

Cook and Zumie wound down from the Boulderfield, the high camp on Longs's mega-popular Keyhole Route. They crested 12,324-foot Flattop Mountain and the Continental Divide, and followed the 13-mile Tonahutu Creek drainage to the village of Grand Lake. After a quick lunch, they headed home along East Inlet Creek, recrossing the Divide via 12,061-foot Boulder-Grand Pass, scrambling up Longs, and descending back to the Boulderfield 24 hours after they started. I'll take seven days to complete their loop, camping at four designated trailside sites and in one off-trail zone, resupplying in Grand Lake, and climbing Keplingers Couloir before descending Longs via the Keyhole Route.

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Reader Rating: Star Star Star Star Star


Jul 05, 2012

I just finished this loop last week. It was excellent! Did it in 6 days, but the 2nd day from Tonahutu (Renegade not available) to Paintbrush was extremely short. Ended up hiking into Grand Lake on Day 2, hanging out and then heading back to Paintbrush. Would definitely combine Day 2 & 3 next time - provided you are acclimated to the elevation. Going directly from Lake Verna to Hunters Creek cross country 1G would also cut off another day - defintely do-able, but you'll have to top Bolder Grand and the North Ridge on the same day. Be prepared for the long grind from Longs Peak back down to Bear Lake on the last day!

BTW, I think the rangers dont suggest this hike, because they dont know how experienced the hikers are. Weather is a big factor.

Thanks Dougald for blazing the trail! Loved it!

Apr 12, 2012

I want to do this loop in 4 days how hard would that be? And why are the rangers not recommending this loop?

Stephen Groves
Jul 26, 2011

I am planning on making this a 5 day trip, (although the rangers are doing their best to talk me out of it). I plan on staying at Renegade on night 1, Paintbrush on night 2, Lake Verna on night 3, Hunters Creek Cross Country Area on night 4, and then summit Longs and end the trip on day 5. What do you think?

Feb 18, 2011

I am curious as to how this could be modified into a 5 day or even 4 day trip. I know that seems fast but I guess it is reasonable if two men did it in 24 hours. I am just curious about where one would camp each day if the trip were shortened. I would love to take a week but have limited time.

Chris L
Jun 25, 2010

We are planning this hike to start Aug 31st. The RMNP back country office does not try to hide that they do not recommend it and will try to talk you out of it.

Apr 16, 2010

We did this loop last August, but modified the end to skip Longs Peak. Was a great hike. When we checked in with the rangers before the hike, they said we would not be able to make the day over Flattop work, and it was long but we did. The walk up the valley and over the pass from Grand Lake was stunning. The campsites just uptrail from Grand Lake are closed due to the pine borer and falling trees, so the hike as shown here needs to be modified.

Apr 06, 2010

I just read online that a pair recently did the Highline Trail in the Uintas in 30 hours that's 75 miles. These guys are animals.

Apr 06, 2010

I just read online that a pair recently did the Highline Trail in the Uintas in 30 hours that's 75 miles. These guys are animals.

Apr 06, 2010

I just read online that a pair recently did the Highline Trail in the Uintas in 30 hours that's 75 miles. These guys are animals.

Jon Andersen
Feb 16, 2010

I loved this story, and plan on following this loop in the summer!

abbi zumwalt
Jan 21, 2010

"zumie" was my grandpa and this is indeed a true story! It brings me such joy to see him remembered this way, youthful and daring :) Best wishes to all you hikers following in his footsteps!

Oct 13, 2009

My friend and I have decided to pick up this hike at Grand Lake next summer. It sounds like a beautiful, quiet route with a spectacular finish.

Susan Cook Oliver
Sep 08, 2009

Yes indeed, and that quick lunch in Grand Lake was only on shared piece of pie as that was all the money they had on them.

NM Backpacker
Aug 27, 2009

am i understanding correctly? cook and zumwalt would complete a 43 mile loop in one day?


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