Rocky Mountain National Park: Continental Divide Loop

Tour glacial valleys and navigate to off-trail lakes and waterfalls on this six-day circuit in Rocky Mountain National Park.
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Tour glacial valleys and navigate to off-trail lakes and waterfalls on this six-day circuit in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Want to see classic Rocky Mountain National Park landmarksand explore hidden pockets of wilderness? Do it on this 54-mile, best-of-both-worlds trek that crisscrosses the Continental Divide, linking the park’s lesser-tracked high country west of the Divide with the well-loved lakes and waterfalls on the east side.

Start on the East Inlet Trail, roughly two miles from the town of Grand Lake, and hike east along its meandering namesake creek. Less than half a mile in, take the quick, .2-mile loop on the right to see Adams Falls, which cascades down boulders and plummets through a narrow gorge. As the trail runs up the valley, you’ll skirt marshy meadows (look for moose munching in the willows in early morning) and meander through lodgepole pine and quaking aspen groves.

Five miles in, trace the southern shoreline of Lone Pine Lake, a forested pool protected by a cluster of 12,000-foot peaks, and climb east toward the head of the pinched valley. Pick up the user path at mile 6.4, where the maintained trail ends at Lake Verna, and follow it past Spirit and Fourth Lakes. From there, tackle a steep bushwhack, gaining 1,600 feet in .9 mile, to wind-blown, 12,061-foot Boulder-Grand Pass on the crest of the Continental Divide.

Descend talus-filled gullies on the east side of the Divide and connect with the maintained trail at Thunder Lake; camp in the designated site just north of the lake.

Rise early on day two for a strenuous day of high-altitude, cross-country travel that racks up 6,200 feet of elevation change in less than five miles. Leave the established trail .2 mile east of the Thunder Lake patrol cabin and navigate north past your own private waterfall—watch misty Thunder Falls pour down a short cliff, then flow through a streambed of boulders.

About half an hour from the Thunder Lake camp, cross the Lion Lake Trail in a spongy meadow and veer east to the granite-lined banks of Castle Lake, one of the most isolated lakes in the park (with prime northwest views of Mt. Alice’s crags). Next, climb northeast above treeline to a broad, flat saddle on North Ridge, then descend the backside, crossing Hunters Creek at the outlet of a small pond below Keplinger Lake.

Past the lake, maneuver around boulders and bushwhack through stunted trees near timberline to the base of Keplinger’s Couloir on Longs’s south face (mile 13). Scramble up the couloir to about 13,500 feet, and traverse northwest on a rock ramp that leads to the three-foot-wide Narrows ledge. (Don’t miss: Scale the cracked granite slabs that rise 450 vertical feet directly in front of you to tag Longs’s summit on a .1-mile round-trip detour.)

Tightrope walk west, then downclimb boulders in The Trough couloir, angling north at 13,200 feet for a .3-mile traverse to the Keyhole notch and the Boulderfield (sleep above treeline in one of nine campsites).

On day three, descend East Longs Peak Trail, and swing left at mile 20 near the park’s eastern boundary to crest Storm Pass and the 11,006-foot pinnacle of Estes Cone. Descend 2.9 miles farther and spend the third night near beaver ponds at Upper Wind River campsite.

Day four: Drop into Glacier Basin, and turn left at mile 30, passing the popular Alberta Falls (crowds fade ahead). Less than a mile later, turn right at the base of Glacier Knobs, two side-by-side granite domes, and skirt the north shore of The Loch, rimmed by cliffy, granite peaks. Pitch your tent .2 mile later in a spruce-fir stand at Andrews Creek camp.

Hike past Chaos Canyon, Tyndall Gorge, and three more lakes (Dream, Nymph, and Bear) on day five. The last major climb (gaining 2,800 feet in four miles) starts at mile 37.7 from the eastern shores of Bear Lake and ascends steadily through shady spruce, fir, and aspen stands. Stop at an overlook midway up a series of tight switchbacks to peer into the depths of Tyndall Gorge; Tyndall Glacier, one of the park’s most photographed glaciers, sits at the head of the cirque.

Near mile 42, roll across 12,324-foot Flattop Mountain, a broad swath of alpine tundra where you’re almost guaranteed the chance to hang with elk. Descend west to pick up North Inlet Trail at a three-way junction, and drop down 3.3 miles to the July campsite near Hallett Creek. Close out the week with an 8.4-mile descent along North Inlet creek to your car.

INFO For information on permits, current trail and camp conditions, and wilderness guidelines, go to nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/backcountry.htm

PERMIT A wilderness permit is required for all overnight camping in the backcountry. Reservations accepted ($20 administrative fee for permits during peak season). nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/backcntry_guide.htm

CONTACT Rocky Mountain National Park, (970) 586-1206; nps.gov/romo

-Text by Kim Phillips. Mapped by Jenn Fields, Kristy Holland, Casey Lyons, Dougald MacDonald, Kim Phillips, MacKenzie Ryan, Tim Shisler, Kris Wagner

TO TRAILHEAD
Shuttle car/North Inlet Trail: From Trail Ridge Rd. and W. Portal Rd. in Grand Lake, drive 1.1 miles northeast on W. Portal Rd. Turn left on CR 663. Go .3 mile to the parking area.

To trailhead/East Inlet Trail: Take CR 663 back to W. Portal Rd. and turn left. Drive southeast 1.2 miles to the East Inlet parking area.

Trail Facts

  • Distance: 86.8

Waypoints

CDL001

Location: 40.239406, -105.799839

The loop begins on the eastern edge of Grand Lake. Hike southeast on the East Inlet Trail toward its same-name creek. The trail offers pretty cross-meadow views up the valley.

CDL002

Location: 40.237117, -105.797497

Turn right onto the short loop trail that leads to a viewing platform near Adams Falls, which plummets through a narrow gorge.

CDL003

Location: 40.237477, -105.784279

To the southeast, 12,007-foot Mount Craig rises behind the meadow flanking the trail.

CDL004

Location: 40.228872, -105.75911

This overlook atop granite shelves, rises above East Inlet Falls and reveals views to the west.

CDL005

Location: 40.230201, -105.758493

Beginning of Cat's Lair Dispersed Camping Zone

CDL006

Location: 40.226269, -105.742829

The bridge over East Inlet Creek marks the end of the dispersed camping area.

CDL007

Location: 40.230365, -105.736327

Gray Jay Group camping area

CDL008

Location: 40.230938, -105.732744

Lone Pine Lake: This forested lake sits at the base of four peaks (Ptarmigan Mountain, Andrews Peak, Mount Craig, and Mt. Cairns). From the eastern edge of the lake, the route runs east-southeast past a string of three lakes.

CDL009

Location: 40.233576, -105.727551

Pretty trailside cascade

CDL010

Location: 40.233232, -105.727272

Slickrock campsite

CDL011

Location: 40.231414, -105.725991

Solitaire campsite

CDL012

Location: 40.228481, -105.716093

Upper East Inlet campsite

CDL013

Location: 40.227416, -105.712144

Lake Verna: This long whale-shaped lake has a sandy beach on its east shores, and the Lake Verna campsite offers some of the best camping in the valley. The maintained trail ends here; follow the path that runs along the northern shore of the lake.

CDL014

Location: 40.225182, -105.69772

Spirit Lake is bordered by a boulder field on south side and meadows on the east side.

CDL015

Location: 40.222614, -105.687547

Fourth Lake

CDL016

Location: 40.222993, -105.685043

At the northeast edge of Fourth Lake, start a steep bushwhack, next to a tiny creek, that ends on Boulder-Grand Pass. You'll gain 1,600 feet in .9 mile.

CDL017

Location: 40.224795, -105.673456

Hike through grass hummocks in this shallow, wet gully near treeline. The remaining, tk-mile stretch across tundra to the pass (directly east of this point) is obvious from here.

CDL018

Location: 40.224631, -105.6691

Crest wind-blown, 12,061-foot Boulder-Grand Pass, which links the East Inlet valley and Wild Basin.

CDL019

Location: 40.224664, -105.668628

Descend this gully (bypassing the permanent snowfield on the east side of the pass) to the banks of Lake of Many Winds.

CDL020

Location: 40.225376, -105.665731

This aptly-named lake is perched on a gusty bench below Boulder-Grand Pass. From here, descend a boulder-filled gully (paralleling the outlet stream) to reach the north side of Thunder Lake. Wildflowers bloom here in July.

CDL021

Location: 40.222305, -105.644982

Pass the NPS patrol cabin, then turn left at the side trail to the forested Thunder Lake campsites (four individual and 1 group site).

CDL022

Location: 40.221797, -105.641828

On the second day, the route leaves Thunder Lake Trail. Bear left (north) at this point (.2 mile east of the lake) for a cross-country climb that passes Thunder Falls in less than half a mile.

CDL023

Location: 40.22948, -105.637901

About a half an hour from the Thunder Lake campsite, you'll cross the Lion Lake Trail in a wet meadow. Continue cross-country, heading southeast to lily pad-shaped Castle Lake.

CDL024

Location: 40.228983, -105.635058

Scramble through the gap in a small cliff band to reach Castle Lake.

CDL025

Location: 40.229022, -105.634747

Granite-lined Castle Lake offers prime views of Mount Alice's east face. From here, skirt the southern edge of the lake, then climb northeast to the broad, flat saddle on North Ridge.

CDL026

Location: 40.230571, -105.627141

The climb tops out above treeline on North Ridge, which forms the southern slopes of Chiefs Head Peak. Keplinger's Couloir on the south face of Longs Peak is in plain view. Next descend North Ridge, heading north to the small pond below Keplinger Lake.

CDL027

Location: 40.235328, -105.626078

Cross Hunters Creek at the outlet of this small pond below Keplinger Lake. Next, climb northeast into the gully adjacent to the Keplinger Lake drainage. Caution: It's tough going ahead through boulders and krummholz for about half a mile.

CDL028

Location: 40.242421, -105.619297

Pass shallow ponds beneath striking cliffs at the end of Pagoda Mountain's long south ridge.

CDL029

Location: 40.246502, -105.617554

Pass the base of steep scree cone.

CDL030

Location: 40.247971, -105.616901

This point marks the entrance to Keplingers Couloir, the gully splitting the south face of Longs Peak. Keep climbing.

CDL031

Location: 40.249939, -105.616486

The gully forks here: stay left.

CDL032

Location: 40.253148, -105.614512

Just below The Notch, follow a wide rock ramp to the northwest to reach the Homestretch.

CDL033

Location: 40.253656, -105.614877

Just below the Notch (the dramatic gap between the Palisades and Longs' summit block), follow the ledges to the left (west).

CDL034

Location: 40.254049, -105.61698

East end of the Narrows: The route traverses west along more exposed ledges. To the southeast you'll see Sandbeach Lake, a popular destination in Rocky Mountain National Park.

CDL035

Location: 40.254393, -105.618718

Top of The Trough, a huge northwest-facing couloir. Watch for icy snow patches. From here, it's a six-mile descent toward the Longs Peak trailhead.

CDL036

Location: 40.256211, -105.62067

Bear right (north) to exit The Trough. Traverse the boulder-covered slopes toward The Keyhole.

CDL037

Location: 40.260485, -105.621271

The Keyhole, a huge rock notch that rises above the Boulder Field. Follow blazes to avoid cutting east too soon and cliffing out on the False Keyhole. You'll find five-star views into Glacier Gorge, a glacier-dozed valley rich with vivid blue alpine lakes. Ahead, pass a small stone building, then carefully descend the expansive, aptly-named Boulder Field.

CDL038

Location: 40.263481, -105.615435

Spend the second night above treeline in the Boulderfield (nine individual sites). On day three, continue descending East Longs Peak Trail.

CDL039

Location: 40.274089, -105.605403

At wind-swept Granite Pass, turn right, heading south. Continue straight at the next 3-way junction.

CDL040

Location: 40.265675, -105.592732

Turn left at the 3-way junction on Mills Moraine. This ridgeline offers impressive views to the southwest of Longs's East Face (its sheer granite wall rises more than 1,600 feet above Chasm Lake). Ahead, look for the snow-white plumes of ptarmigans against the grayish rocks of Mill Moraine.

CDL041

Location: 40.270816, -105.584321

The trail curves to the right at the northern edge of Mills Moraine.

CDL042

Location: 40.273141, -105.580244

Cross two footbridges over Alpine Brook. This is a good spot to top off water bladders, grab a snack, or soak your feet. From here, the trail descends through forest.

CDL043

Location: 40.273108, -105.570674

Pass Goblin Forest on the left, a primitive campsite (permit required).

CDL044

Location: 40.275007, -105.56428

Turn left at the 3-way junction, heading north toward Storm Pass.

CDL045

Location: 40.286978, -105.564742

Turn left at the T-junction.

CDL046

Location: 40.293051, -105.573711

Crest forested Storm Pass, then turn right for a short, steep ascent of mounded, 11,006-foot Estes Cone.

CDL047

Location: 40.294306, -105.570867

Caution: Rocky trail switchbacks at odd places. Watch for random cairns.

CDL048

Location: 40.295292, -105.567398

Estes Cone (11,006 ft.): Summit serves up views of dozens of snowy peaks, including Mount Meeker and Longs Peak. Next, return to CDL046 and bear right on Storm Pass Trail.

CDL049

Location: 40.311284, -105.606916

Turn right on Wind River Trail to reach the night's campsite.

CDL050

Location: 40.312336, -105.600044

Spend the third night at Upper Wind River (8,940 ft.), marked with a silver metal arrowhead. The two sites are near beaver ponds in a lodgepole pine forest. On day four, backtrack to CDL049, turn right, and descend Storm Pass Trail into Glacier Basin.

CDL051

Location: 40.314936, -105.612076

Turn left at the 3-way junction with Glacier Creek Trail.

CDL052

Location: 40.316791, -105.615717

Continue straight (west) at the intersection with Boulder Brook Trail. The trail climbs moderately for the next 5.1 miles to Chaos Creek.

CDL053

Location: 40.307678, -105.643402

Turn left at the 3-way Glacier Gorge Junction. The trail climbs southeast toward Alberta Falls.

CDL054

Location: 40.306613, -105.641484

Cross the bridge over the stream.

CDL055

Location: 40.306206, -105.638908

A few user-created trails lead to the edge of a deep ravine. Stick to the main trail: overgrowth and tree-cover make for a less than spectacular scene. Heading upstream, the trail skirts the log-jammed river.

CDL056

Location: 40.304634, -105.638626

Stop for an upstream peek at several tumbling cascades.

CDL057

Location: 40.303909, -105.638199

The trail travels past the popular Alberta Falls. Stop to get a look at this photogenic waterfall that pours over massive boulders. The crowds fade ahead.

CDL058

Location: 40.299625, -105.639596

Admire the valley views at the rest stop just before the 3-way junction. Turn right. The trail skirts the base of the Glacier Knobs.

CDL059

Location: 40.297412, -105.645948

Continue straight at the junction located between Glacier Knobs, two side-by-side granite domes. Head southwest into Loch Vale.

CDL060

Location: 40.293864, -105.655346

The trail wraps around the northern shore of The Loch, which is rimmed by granite peaks.

CDL061

Location: 40.28789, -105.664347

After crossing Andrews Creek, turn right at the Y-junction.

CDL062

Location: 40.289445, -105.666976

Night four: Set up your tent at Andrews Creek (1 individual site) in a spruce and fir stand. On day five, backtrack to CDL059, and turn left (north).

CDL063

Location: 40.305189, -105.656707

Cross Chaos Creek, which flows out of Lake Haiyaha at the mouth of Chaos Canyon.

CDL064

Location: 40.308549, -105.65834

The trail switchbacks to the right and runs along the southern shore of skinny Dream Lake.

CDL065

Location: 40.310078, -105.655625

Cross an unnamed stream, which flows down Tyndall Gorge into Emerald Lake and Dream Lake before flowing into Chaos Creek .2 mile southeast of this point.

CDL066

Location: 40.310517, -105.651345

The trail passes Nymph Lake.

CDL067

Location: 40.311996, -105.646291

Pass Bear Lake trailhead, then head north toward Bear Lake for the last big climb of the route to 12,324-foot Flattop Mountain. Prepare to gain 2,800 feet in roughly four miles.

CDL068

Location: 40.313522, -105.646856

Turn right at 3-way junction onto the Flattop Mountain Trail, and begin a steady ascent through a thick conifer forest intermixed with spruce-fir and aspen stands.

CDL069

Location: 40.317278, -105.644428

Turn left at the 3-way junction.

CDL070

Location: 40.316422, -105.653051

Bear left at the 3-way junction and continue ascending through the trees. Peek-a-boo views of Glacier Gorge begin emerging to the south.

CDL071

Location: 40.312556, -105.659096

Take a breather at this overlook with an impressive bird's-eye view of Dream Lake. The trail continues to ascend switchbacks through thick spruce-fir groves.

CDL072

Location: 40.315211, -105.665442

As the forest thins, make sure to evaluate the weather before continuing on. During summer months, afternoon lightning storms can hit quickly.

CDL073

Location: 40.3147, -105.670248

Midway up a series of tight switchbacks is an overlook with views into Tyndall Gorge. Glacier Gorge and Longs Peak are clearly visible to the southeast, and Tyndall Glacier, one of five remaining active glaciers in the park, can be spotted to the west.

CDL074

Location: 40.310348, -105.684187

Just below the Flattop summit, pass a large hitchrack marking the top of Tyndall Glacier, which can be seen to the east. The trail quickly ascends the last few hundred feet to the large flat summit of Flattop Mountain.

CDL075

Location: 40.308854, -105.6903

Crest Flattop Mountain (12,324 ft.). The summit, largely a flat swath of alpine tundra, has no official summit marker, but hikers generally consider the junction of Flattop Mountain Trail and Tonahutu Trail the official top. Views include Longs Peak to the southeast, Hallet Peak to the east, and 180-degree views of the park to the west. To continue, descend the Tonahutu Trail toward Ptarmigan Pass.

CDL076

Location: 40.309534, -105.694771

Turn left onto North Inlet Trail at this 3-way junction. The trail descends south past knee-high cairns with eastern views of 14,259-foot Longs Peak.

CDL077

Location: 40.28257, -105.699077

Descend a series of switchbacks to Hallett Creek.

CDL078

Location: 40.286761, -105.70281

Cross Hallett Creek. Spend the fifth night at the July campsite (3 individual; 1 group). A bear box is available directly uphill. The creek runs due east of the site and makes for an excellent water source.

CDL079

Location: 40.28245, -105.715351

Descend exposed switchbacks. Look for views of the Continental Divide and surrounding mountains.

CDL080

Location: 40.2813, -105.72122

Continue straight at this junction with the Lake Nanita Trail, which leads to Lakes Nonoki and Nanita. The side trip to both lakes will tack on 7 extra miles.

CDL081

Location: 40.271441, -105.766538

Arrive at Cascade Falls. A spur trail full of roots and rocks shoots off to the right and brings hikers to the base of the falls.

CDL082

Location: 40.264175, -105.788731

The trail skirts Summerland Park as you knock off the final miles.

CDL083

Location: 40.258339, -105.798812

The North Inlet flows right next to the North Inlet Trail on the southwestern edge of Summerland Park, providing excellent access to fishing (it's not uncommon to see fly fishermen along this stretch).

CDL084

Location: 40.256558, -105.814764

The route ends at the North Inlet trailhead on RMNP's less-trafficked west side. Pick up your shuttle car and follow Summerland Park and West Portal Roads to the East Inlet trailhead.

Gateway Inn

Location: 40.253754, -105.832608

Gateway Inn: A good place to resupply, shower ($10), and eat a piece of pie for brunch.

East Inlet

Location: 40.237425, -105.784135

Views along the East Inlet valley

Location: 40.237442, -105.783877

Lone Pine Lake

Location: 40.230971, -105.732486

Route up Longs Peak via Keplingers Couloir

Location: 40.236819, -105.62376

Traversing the Ledges

Location: 40.259575, -105.620926

The view looking north toward The Keyhole

Privy View

Location: 40.264206, -105.615288

You can't beat this view from the privy seat.

Longs Peak

Location: 40.265069, -105.61376

East Longs Peak Trail

Location: 40.268999, -105.61045

Views near Granite Pass

Location: 40.273485, -105.608804

Alberta Falls

Location: 40.303921, -105.63811

The Loch

Location: 40.293881, -105.65526

Views to the east

Location: 40.31481, -105.661182

Emerald Lake Overlook

Location: 40.314696, -105.670184

Approaching the backside of Flattop Mountain

Location: 40.313403, -105.678992

Hitchrack

Location: 40.310311, -105.68397

Flattop Mountain

Location: 40.308904, -105.69015

Views of Hallett Peak

Location: 40.308805, -105.690161

Views in the Hallett Creek drainage

Location: 40.285271, -105.706759

Elk Herd

Location: 40.281163, -105.718775

Exposed Trail

Location: 40.284142, -105.727186

Big Pool

Location: 40.285746, -105.73843

North Inlet

Location: 40.282014, -105.76272

Cascade Falls

Location: 40.27152, -105.766325

Rock Wall

Location: 40.271422, -105.766218

North Inlet

Location: 40.270129, -105.767891

North Inlet

Location: 40.258405, -105.798512

Horse

Location: 40.256309, -105.805163

Aspens along North Inlet Trail

Location: 40.256293, -105.806665