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Life’s Great (Continental) Divide

The Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park is a place of reckoning and, given its trackless nature, a place of choices. To a young man who came of age here, it offers perspective on paths not taken.

Expedition Planner

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Hiking the Divide: The Continental Divide is clearly marked on any map of the park. I stepped onto it at Milner Pass on Trail Ridge Road and followed it to the Boulder-Grand Pass (except for descents below timberline to camp at Tonahutu and North Inlet creeks), then dropped to Thunder Lake from which a trail leads to the Wild Basin trailhead. In all, about 10 miles of trail travel and 20 miles off-trail. Innumerable alternatives exist for exploring along the Continental Divide. Just get a map and plot a route-keeping in mind that you’ll need reservations for camping, which is limited to specific sites and “cross-country zones.”

Getting there: Rocky Mountain National Park adjoins the town of Estes Park, a 2-hour drive northwest from Denver.

Season: Go late in the summer to avoid snow in the high country. In early summer (through early July), plan to carry an ice axe and maybe crampons to negotiate steeper slopes. Snow returns sometime in October or early November.

Permits: Required for all overnight camping. Permits are available the day of your trip at park headquarters, or can be secured in advance from the Backcountry Office, Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park, CO 80517; (970) 586-1242. There is a $15 fee. This address is also a good source for further information about hiking and camping in the park.

Maps and guidebooks: The Trails Illustrated topographic map Rocky Mountain National Park (#200, $8.99, 800-962-1643) is all you really need, though USGS 7-minute series topos of the specific section you’ll be hiking may give you peace of mind (call MapLink, 800-962-1394). Rocky Mountain National Park Hiking Trails, by Kent and Donna Dannon ($12.95, Globe Pequot Press, 860-395-0440) provides the basic story, while Rocky Mountain National Park: Classic Hikes and Climbs, by Gerry Roach (Fulcrum Publishing, $14.95, 800-992-2908) details excursions for the adventuresome. These and other titles are available from the Rocky Mountain Nature Association, (970) 586-1258, and some outdoors stores in Estes Park.

Precautions: Off-trail above timberline is no place for the unprepared. Just a partial list of the dangers includes altitude sickness, dehydration, severe sunburn, surprise snowstorms, knock-you-down winds, and snowfields. Here’s how to cope:

  • Finding shelter: If a storm or big wind blows in, you can run but you can’t hide. Plan ahead by carefully studying the topo map so you know the nearest escape route down to treeline or at least out of the wind. Let prudence be your guide during changing weather.
  • Finding your way: When clouds roll in, the trailless, treeless landscape can become indecipherable. Always know exactly where you are on the topo map and the compass bearings to get where you want to go.
  • Bolting from lightning: Above the trees, you’re often the highest point around-a real lightning rod. Typically thunderstorms build during the afternoon, so try to get your hiking done early. If you hear thunder nearby or feel a sizzling, tingling sensation, run for timberline or plant yourself in a good location to wait it out. The safest spot usually is on a slope where you’re neither the high nor the low point. Put some distance between you and anything metal, like a frame pack, tent poles, a stove, ice axe, or trekking poles. Don’t sit or lie with your spinal cord against the ground. Kneel on your sleeping pad. Don’t stop or camp under the only tree around or even in an isolated clump of trees. Read up on lightning avoidance techniques (“Swords From the Sky,” August 1994, is a good start). Your life may depend on it.

Leave No Trace: It’s hard for tundra plants to survive, so go out of your way to avoid stepping on them. Often you can hike for miles by stepping from rock to rock. Where you must touch earth, follow existing paths such as elk and peakbagger trails when you find them. When there’s little sign of man or beast and your party consists of two or more, fan out so the same plant doesn’t get trampled several times.

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