For millennia, in a land now known as Colorado, the wind blew and snow drifted to leeward. The crystals piled deeper and deeper until they compressed into rivers of ice that carved vast gashes into billion-year-old granite and gneiss. When the earth warmed and the ice melted, jagged spires and towering walls stood proud where they’d resisted the relentless ice. Then came the tourists. Thicker and thicker they accumulated until trails had to be paved, parking lots enlarged, camping spots reserved months in advance, a national park declared. Now three million humans each year pay their entrance fees and peer through windshields at what the ice
couldn’t cut. Swarms follow asphalt paths to reflective ponds. Thousands dayhike deeper into crag-walled canyons. But all is not found. Wild places remain in this park. Let us introduce you to three of the best.
Tonahutu Creek/North Inlet Loop
During the glacial ages, most of the snow that fell in the Rockies built up on the eastern, or leeward, side, carving those rugged faces the crowds come to see. The west side is different. Less jagged, more subtle, with space to explore. The masses are happy to drive under the famous precipices
and snap their pictures. Happier still are those few who shoulder a backpack and wander the west-side trails in classic Colorado high country, discovering pockets of alpine ruggedness and miles of sweet-smelling pine and spruce.
Starting near Grand Lake, the 21-mile Tonahutu Creek/North Inlet Loop lets backpackers experience the best of the west, including half a dozen miles of tundra hiking along the spine of the Continental Divide. Weather permitting, drop your pack on the Divide and spend several extra hours rim-walking the eastern edge, staring down at those near-thousand-foot walls and towers everyone else is ogling from below.
This fantastic loop isn’t unknown, but you won’t be disappointed or elbowed off the trail. The one thing you’ll compete for is a campsite just below timberline. The Renegade and July campsites are popular launching points for the tundra ahead (reserve in advance if you’re visiting mid-summer or later). For more solitude, hike the various side trails or explore unlimited off-trail terrain, which you’ll share only with bears, elk, and other wildlife.