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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.


The Rocky Mountain Grand Loop
Explore the quieter side of "Colorado's park" on the author's historically inspired route.

Hike It
This trip starts with a bang: a 4.4-mile, 2,874-foot climb from Bear Lake trailhead (1) to 12,324-foot Flattop Mountain (2). Head northwest on Tonahutu Creek Trail 3.5 miles across Bighorn Flats; end just below treeline at Renegade campsite (3). The next day, stroll downhill 4.5 miles to Big Meadows and camp in .75 to 1.5 miles at South Meadows or Paintbrush campsites. From here, it's less than two hours to the village of Grand Lake. Follow Summerland Park and West Portal Roads for 1.5 miles to East Inlet trailhead (4).

Walk up the East Inlet drainage 6.6 miles to Lake Verna (5) for the best campsite in the valley. Take a rest day and explore the emerald-grass shores of Fifth Lake, below aptly named Isolation Peak (13,118 feet). To reach Boulder-Grand Pass (6), follow an unmaintained trail east, past Spirit Lake, to the north side of Fourth Lake. Bushwhack steeply to the east-northeast to the 12,061-foot pass. Descend the east side, skirting a permanent snowfield alongside a steep gully on the left (north). Continue to the designated campsite just east of the patrol cabin (7) beside Thunder Lake. On day six, climb northeast through open forest to the Lion Lake Trail. After a .5-mile side trip to explore the wildflowers around the Lion Lakes and Trio Falls, follow game trails east from Lion Lake No. 1 (8), climbing about 500 vertical feet to North Ridge, just west of Mt. Orton. Contour down the far side to the north and camp at the upper end of the Hunters Creek (9) cross-country zone.

Next morning, climb to the cirque below Longs Peak's south face. Keplingers Couloir (10) rises steeply for 1,600 feet to the Notch, between Longs and Mt. Meeker. A few simple hand-and-foot moves are required to pass obstacles; keep right when in doubt until you reach the base of the Palisades cliffs (11). Expect snow in this chute until late June.

Traverse left across exposed slabs to the Keyhole Route; follow red-and-yellow blazes to the cleaved summit of Longs Peak (14,259 ft.) (12). Finish an exhausting day with a 10-mile, 4,800-foot descent of the Keyhole Route, North Longs Peak Trail, and Glacier Gorge Trail (13) to close this 43-mile loop.

The Way

9 miles on Bear Lake Road from the Beaver Meadows entrance to a large lot.

When to go
Wildflowers explode in mid-July; elk bugle in September. Check conditions on Longs's upper faces before starting–snow and ice may require technical skills (plus an ice axe and crampons) in shoulder seasons.

Map and Guidebook
Trails Illustrated #200 ($12;; Rocky Mountain National Park: The Complete Hiking Guide, by Lisa Foster ($28,

Go Guided
Kaiyote Tours leads multiday backpacking and wildlife trips ($270 per day for two people;

Reserve permits ($20 per trip) by phone starting March 1; after May 15, mail in requests or apply in person at the backcountry office beside the Beaver Meadows visitor center:, (970) 586-1242; Backcountry Office, Estes Park, CO 80517. Permitted backcountry camping is limited to seven consecutive nights per party.

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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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