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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.


Starting at the Bear Lake trailhead last September, I grunt up 4.4 miles of switchbacks to Flattop's summit and make my first Continental Divide crossing by noon. The Divide winds 40 miles through the heart of the park, crossing 18 named 12,000- and 13,000-foot peaks (but avoiding Longs, which lies two miles to the east). It parts watersheds–sending snowmelt to the Gulf of California via the Colorado River, and to the Gulf of Mexico via the Big Thompson. It also shapes most people's park experience. Rocky's 2.8 million annual visitors crowd onto trails and campgrounds in the valleys east of the Divide and north of Longs Peak, but hiker traffic drops exponentially to the west of that mountainous line.

I head northwest down the gentle tundra slopes of Bighorn Flats on the Tonahutu Creek Trail, likely following the same paths once used by the Utes and Arapahos to migrate and hunt. Two huge elk graze among wind-stunted willows. After four miles above treeline, I descend along Tonahutu Creek into the wetter, wilder west side of the park. While the landscape east of the Divide resembles the High Plains (dry, with short-grass meadows, powerful winds, and ponderosa pines), here it suggests Montana: dense spruce-fir forests, white-flowered kinnikinnick, pine marten, and moose. Only a single maintained trail–the one I've just followed over Flattop–crosses the Divide anywhere inside the park.

My first day is one of the hardest on this loop–I won't reach a higher elevation until Longs Peak–and in late afternoon I'm happy to soak my feet in the icy creek at Renegade campsite. At this point, 15 miles into their hike, Cook and Zumwalt had barely gotten started, and chances are the superfit youths were still feeling peppy. Zumwalt summited Longs 53 times in 1932, still a single-year record. And Cook once draped an injured mountaineer over his back and carried him more than 500 vertical feet up Longs's east face to the summit.

I wake up ready for a six-mile stroll along rushing Tonahutu Creek. The trail descends through spruce and fir that give way to lodgepole pines ravaged by mountain pine beetles. Pausing frequently for photos in two-mile-long Big Meadows, I set up camp just past the final meadow, where friends had told me I might spot moose feeding along the creek. At dusk, an enormous bull strides into the grass and stands almost motionless for 10 minutes. From Big Meadows, I cruise three downhill miles to the boardwalk-lined storefronts of Grand Lake. Cook and Zumie had already put in more than 25 miles by the time they arrived here. "We were getting a little bit gaunt," Cook recalled in an interview 60 years later. The two men beelined to a café, where they made an awful discovery. "Zum thought I had money, and I thought Zum had money," Cook said. "Between the two of us, we scraped together 37 cents–enough for one piece of pie." They had 15 miles and 8,000 vertical feet to go.

I have a haul ahead of me, too, but carve out time for a late breakfast, plus a ceremonial slice of cherry pie at the Fat Cat Café. After stocking up on fresh spinach and tomatoes at Mountain Foods Market, I cool off in the clear water of Colorado's largest natural lake and walk around the north shore to pick up the East Inlet Trail. This is my first time in East Inlet Valley, and it quickly joins my favorite spots in the park. The trail leads past a succession of sparkling lakes–Lone Pine, Verna, Spirit, Fourth–that pull me upward with a continuous promise of new vistas. Over seven miles, my rock climber's eye roams the steep walls of Aiguille de Fleur and the Cleaver, tracing imaginary routes up the granite faces. Although I've passed other hikers today, the trails are virtually empty.

By the time I get to the Lake Verna campsite, I'm ready for my planned rest day. In the morning, I hike a couple of miles to Fifth Lake at the head of the valley, a sapphire tarn below a curving, two-mile-wide rampart of 1,000-foot cliffs and airy needles. Back at camp, I loll on the boulders by Lake Verna; at sunset, a cow elk surprises me when she splashes through the shallows.

Though no trail exists, the next day's route over 12,061-foot Boulder-Grand Pass is the easiest way across the Divide. From Fourth Lake on, the path is only a rumor, but the pass looms directly east-northeast. I shoot a compass bearing and bushwhack uphill. Before long, the trees thin and the way becomes obvious. From the pass, I can see Longs hulking at the north side of broad Wild Basin. By the time I reach Thunder Lake, nearly 1,500 feet below the pass, a cold wind rips spray from whitecaps. I head to bed before dark.

If they were feeling gaunt in Grand Lake, Cook and Zumwalt must have been wasted by the time they traversed 11,600-foot North Ridge to reach the south face of Longs. A single slice of pie delivers 500 calories, about enough to power one hiker for an hour in this terrain. That may explain why they opted to bivouac–despite not having sleeping bags–before climbing the peak the following morning.

With a permit for Hunters Creek, I follow the same approach, albeit with a 32°F mummy and fat sleeping pad. On the Lion Lakes Trail, I spend an hour photographing columbine in the wet hollows around Lion Lakes 1 and 2, both perched on benches below 13,310-foot Mt. Alice. Following Cook and Zumie's route over North Ridge to a campsite, I pitch my tent in a place few people camp, below a route few ever climb.

According to oral history, Arapaho tribes trapped eagles on Longs Peak's summit. But Grand Canyon explorer John Wesley Powell led the first documented climb of the south face, in 1868. With a pack, it will be a grunt: 2,750 vertical feet from my camp, up Keplingers Couloir to the summit. With each foot placement, the views grow more spectacular–the spine of the Divide winding through the Indian Peaks Wilderness; Pikes Peak and Mt. Evans shimmering in the distance. At about 13,600 feet, I bump into the vertical Palisades cliffs and veer left over rock-strewn slabs to join the Keyhole Route just below the Homestretch–the granite ramp that leads 300 vertical feet to the summit. Already, thunderheads are building, so I snapshot the view and join the first people I've seen in more than 24 hours for the descent. After popping through the Keyhole to Longs's north side, I wind down to the Boulderfield. It's eight miles of downhill hiking to my car, and I pause to refill bottles and fuel up on gorp. Three generations before me, Hull Cook and Clerin Zumwalt ended their loop here in time for breakfast. After a week on the same route, I'm amazed at their feat, but can't help indulging in a little one-upsmanship: Yes, the whippets made history, but they didn't savor the best-kept secrets on the most-secret side of the Rockies' iconic park.

Colorado-based outdoor writer Dougald MacDonald has summited Longs Peak a dozen times since 1982.

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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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